Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Hollywood War Continues

Update on the Hollywood screen - writers strike posted about previously .

Hollywood's film and television writers are in the seventh week of a strike that shows no signs of ending . The Writers Guild membership are refusing to grant a waiver for the Golden Globes awards show on 13 January, which means no participation by any writers or their sympathisers, including the actors' union, and turning down an initial request by the motion picture Academy to show movie or television clips at the Oscars in February.
The writers have shown remarkable unity of purpose in their quest to seek fair compensation for use of their work through new media outlets – the internet, mobile phones, and the rest – and a striking degree of consistency in their line that they were cheated out of their fair share of the video and DVD market, starting back in the 1980s, and have no intention of being cheated all over again. In 1988, they walked out for five months because they felt short-changed and cheated over video residuals – a stoppage that netted them precisely nothing.

They closed down the late-night chat shows and satirical fake newscasts on day one. They persuaded the so-called show-runners – writer-producers who commission, guide and polish scripts – to come out on strike with the rank and file, thus greatly speeding the rate at which popular series such as Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Lost ran out of material and were forced into reruns. Assuming the strike lasts into January and beyond, they will effectively sabotage next autumn's line-up of new television shows, because no writers means no pilot episodes for network executives to view and test-run.
But as the Independent points out , as with all industrial disputes , the employers holds an advantage over the workers .

The stoppage has lost the writers $100m (£50m) or more in lost pay cheques. In a plummeting property market and a stagnant economy, that means real worry about meeting mortgage payments and keeping family budgets afloat – worries that will only increase with every passing week.

Also the studios have already suspended standing deals with many writers and have the power, as of this week, to invoke force majeure and cancel those deals outright if they choose to. That's not without its advantages: it's an opportunity for the boss class to cut out a lot of dead wood and free up funds to commission new sorts of shows, shows that do not depend on unionised writers – the whole genre of reality programming with their good audience ratings at a fraction of the production costs .
Then there is the fact that the script -writers are taking on , not just the one employer but the whole industry . When car workers go on strike, they target just one big company – Ford, or General Motors – and hope the competitive disadvantage felt by that company will pressure them into making a deal. But the writers are striking against every single major media conglomerate – Disney, and News Corp, and Viacom and Time Warner, and the rest. Just one would probably be too much on its own; taking on all of them all at once is ain't at all easy. That explains, perhaps, why the WGA has belatedly decided to negotiate with the studios one-on-one and allowed independent production companies, such as the one that produces David Letterman's late-night chat show on CBS, to reach its own deal with its writers.
Hopefully , it will be the the escalation and unity of the workers that pays off next year when The Screen Actors Guild contract is up for renewal in June, and the the two Guilds will make common cause and bring the entire entertainment media business to a halt.

"Your fight is our fight," SAG's president, Alan Rosenberg said this week. "We are proud to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with you and SAG will be there for as long as it takes."

Perhaps not so united in solidarity are the the Directors Guild, whose contract is also up for renewal in June . Big-name directors can secure lucrative, so-called, "back-end" deals through one-on-one negotiation brokered by their agents, so they don't need the minimums that any union deal might guarantee. At the other end of the scale, the assistant and second-unit directors who make up about 40 per cent of the DGA's membership don't care about residuals because they are considered "below the line" – Hollywood's equivalent of blue-collar workers along with the gaffers and grips and camera operators – and don't qualify for any kind of profit-sharing in the first place.
The sad scenario - a familiar story-line that has been suffered by many workers throughout the world and throughout history - is that the producers cabal will give up on talking to the writers ( in fact it gave up last week, much to the fury of the WGA ) and focus instead on brokering a deal with the directors. The DGA talks will probably begin in January and, barring some big sticking point, wrap up in February or early March. At that point the guilds will be split, the writers will be hungry for work and a sizeable faction is likely to emerge to challenge the hard line adopted by the WGA leadership. Maybe the strike will last long enough to bring the actors on board, maybe it won't – but sooner or later the writers will have to realise they don't have anything like the deep pockets of the media conglomerates who own the studios and the networks, and they will be forced to give in.
It is a reminder that all unions fight against the effects of capitalism and when faced with a determined ruling class , the workers are at a disadvantage in this war between employer and the hired -hand .

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