19-Cent Cheques Leave Writers Wanting Change
Nov 04, 2007 04:30 AM
Special to the Star
Why are Hollywood writers about to go on strike tomorrow? We asked Ken Levine, a Tinseltown scribe and Emmy winner with a near-peerless sitcom pedigree, having worked on Cheers, Frasier, M*A*S*H and The Simpsons. He's also the author of one of the sharper blogs in showbiz: kenlevine.blogspot.com.
I got a cheque recently from American Airlines. A royalty cheque. For the past several years as part of their "inflight entertainment"American Airlines has been showing episodes of Cheers, M*A*S*H and Becker that I wrote along with episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier and Dharma & Greg that I directed. Considering the number of flights and years I'd estimate they've shown my shows 10,000 times. My compensation for that: $0.19. That's right – 19 cents (American, so it's even less in Canada.) I figure at that rate, in 147 years I'll be able to buy one of their snack boxes.
An episode of Frasier I wrote is out on DVD. I make nothing. The script is included in a book. I make zilch. Soon you'll be able to download and watch it on your iPod or iPhone at IHOP. The only one who won't make money is "i".
Are you sensing a pattern?
The Writers Guild of America is asking the mega-corporations that own the entertainment industry in America and the galaxy to compensate its members fairly for this highly desired product they create. Just a piece, that's all. More than nothing. And without sounding greedy, more than nineteen cents.
Via-Uni-Time-Corps-Ney would rather have a strike.
I've been through three of them already. Many of the companies I struck are no longer in business. Two-thirds of the people I struck with are no longer in the guild. And unlike actors and directors, when we go out it doesn't just shut down the industry. It slows it. Hair restoration crèmes have faster results.
But as someone who has prospered and enjoyed the gains writers before me have won, I feel it's my obligation to fight the good fight for the next generation. And hopefully in 20 years, when the issue is holograms transmitted directly to the back of viewers' eyelids, WGA members will hang tough for a piece of that pie.
This acrimony between writers and management has been a proud tradition since the 1930s when scribes first rose up and had the audacity to ... well, ask for things. Warner Brothers czar Jack Warner warned that any writer who joined the union would "find themselves out of work forever." And he claimed this wasn't blacklisting because "it would all be done over the telephone." Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox once shouted, "Throw that writer off the lot until I need him again!" Critic David Thomson says Hollywood writers are like divorce lawyers or private eyes. When you want them you have to have them, but later you despise them.
Is it any wonder we "schmucks with Underwoods" have an inferiority complex and assume a defensive posture? We spend our entire careers trying to protect our work from meddling studios, directors, actors, fellow writers, research gurus, networks, and girlfriends of all of the above.
Yes, we're an angry bunch, a self-righteous bunch, but we make 19 cents from American Airlines when management flies in private jets.
I teach a seminar called The Sitcom Room (sitcomroom.com). It's a fun weekend where I simulate the experience of actually being on the writing staff of a network show. Students rewrite scripts, have real actors perform their work, and learn first hand the realities of the business – little sleep, bad Chinese food, notes. But they eagerly participate, because they love the process, they have a need to express themselves, they want to be heard. Not one has said they want to be a TV writer to make money.
And when they finally do enter the industry, who knows what that industry will be? New delivery systems are emerging so rapidly that even the "unthinkable" was obsolete five minutes ago. These young writers will embrace that future, and through their vision and zeal will make it soar. All they're asking for is their fair share. MyPiece, not MySpace. iShare, not iTunes. NetWorth, not NetFlix.