A fairly happy ending
LET’S not kid ourselves. This town is so desperate to get back to work it’s like that girl auditioning on “American Idol” last week, who would have gladly given Simon Cowell her dog if he’d just put her through to Hollywood.
Well, three-plus months of unemployment can strike the fear of Peter Chernin into anyone. With the Writers Guild of America leaders claiming a “huge victory” on Sunday and recommending that members ratify a new three-year agreement with studios and networks, it looks as if the 14-week writers strike could be over as soon as Wednesday. In fact, many top TV producers will be back at the grind as you read this (OK, some never really stopped, but that’s another story).
Before the euphoria fades and the contractual details of the deal are forgotten like last Sunday’s Super Bowl score, though, it’s an appropriate time to ask: Was it worth it? Did guild leaders gain enough yardage to justify effectively shutting down the TV business and damaging the film industry, putting tens of thousands of people out of work as recession clouds darken on the horizon?
In a word, yes. Against formidable odds, some well-earned skepticism and endless carping from nonwriting workers who viewed themselves as collateral damage in a provincial border war, guild officials stuck to their guns and negotiated a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that, while maybe not a historic win for labor, improves some terms from the recent Directors Guild of America contract, offers a blueprint for future payouts on digital media and even eases some of the pain of the oft-lamented 1988 contract, in which writers failed to achieve their objectives despite a five-month walkout.
“It’s the best deal we could have gotten under the circumstances,” Howard A. Rodman, a screenwriter and member of the guild’s board of directors, told me Sunday. “It accomplished the main goal we wanted when we set out on strike, which was that as the business shifted from television sets and movies to new media, we wouldn’t be left behind. And we got that.”
The main advance for the writers comes in the area of residual payments for material broadcast over the Internet and other digital media. As the market for network TV reruns ebbs, industry players expect Web streaming to start spitting out cash in coming years. The writers were especially sensitive about this issue because they believe they were shafted out of millions of dollars in DVD revenue as a result of home-video deals made during the 1980s.
The DGA agreed to a flat fee for material used on the Web, but the writers, in the third year of their contract, will get something far better: a percentage of the distributor’s gross receipts. Why does this matter? First, it’s proportional. On the off chance that Web streaming does explode into a commercial leviathan, writers will reap the benefits, as opposed to collecting a fee that could wind up looking like a consolation prize. And more important, writers will be paid off the gross that’s actually connected to a retailer’s price -- say, the $1.99 iTunes charges for a TV episode -- as opposed to the less-impressive “producer’s gross,” which entails complicated formulas that require a platoon of accountants to unpack.
As Rodman put it, “If everybody trusted everyone else’s bookkeeping, fine.” But as anyone who’s followed the glorious history of Hollywood “net-profit” deals knows, people who don’t have good contracts with airtight terms usually wind up in tears or in court.
Now, all of this does not mean that the tentative agreement is nirvana for Hollywood’s scribe tribe. Some guild dissenters are already attacking a provision that says the studios don’t have to pay any residual on streamed content for up to 24 days after its initial airing. This term exists because the studios don’t want to have to fork over cash every time a DVR user queues up a show a week or two after its original airdate. But critics say it gives the studio bosses a significant loophole to exploit.
Nor does the deal extend to jurisdiction over reality and animation writers, which Patric Verrone, president of the guild’s West Coast branch, had promised members would be in the next contract. Many in the guild say officials merely used the issue as a stalking horse for the much more vital area of new-media residuals.
But if the guild is really serious about expanding its membership -- as it seems to be -- then it will need to engage in the arduous work of unionizing reality and animated shows one by one and also make moves toward mending relations with its sister guilds, AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), which were seriously damaged in this strike.
Most important, once the relief and giddiness of the strike’s end pass, TV writers in particular are going to confront an altered landscape. There may not be as many opportunities as in the past, and those that remain may simply not be as lucrative, with or without residual payments.
“The TV business will be a different business going forward,” said Jonathan Taplin, a digital media specialist and USC adjunct professor. “It will be slimmed down; there will be less pilots being commissioned and made. It’s just going to be a tighter business.”
Exactly what that will look like, only time will tell. But it’s a safe bet that people who ply their trade on Final Draft aren’t going to go obsolete any time soon.
For now, the important thing to remember is that for the first time in a very long time, a Hollywood craft union struck for an important set of principles and actually came back from the bargaining table with something worth talking about.
Here’s something else: This strike’s almost over! Relax.
Uh, just don’t relax too much. Did we mention the Screen Actors Guild contract expires in less than four months?
The Channel Island column runs every Monday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.