Every time you see a movie, somebody gets paid. Whenever you buy or rent a DVD, many of those same people get paid again. And if you love the film so much that you buy the soundtrack, a T-shirt or a poster for your bedroom, guess what? All those zeroes continue to multiply faster than jack rabbits on Viagra.
So, as the Writers Guild of America went on strike Monday (November 5), the question most film and TV viewers are asking is: Why?
“There really aren’t reruns anymore,” Adam Horowitz, a writer on ABC’s hit series “Lost,” explained when asked that simple question. “What’s happened instead is, episodes of shows are now streamed on the Internet. ABC.com will show ‘Lost.’ … Now, why this is an issue is that they are not paying the writers for reuse of their work. They call it ‘promotional use,’ but while at the same time … very often these studios are running commercials and ads [alongside that video footage]. So what’s happened is, the writers are essentially asking to be paid if [the studios] get paid. It is, in our minds, a very fair proposal: If you get paid, we get paid.”
On the other side of the argument, the studios insist that Web sites, podcasts and other new forms of distribution are too experimental (and unprofitable) to set residual rates.
“Instead of working toward solutions that would give the industry the flexibility it needs to meet today’s business challenges, the WGA leadership continues to pursue numerous unreasonable proposals that would result in astronomical and unjustified increases in our costs, further restrict our ability to produce, promote and market TV series and films,” read a statement from Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and TV Producers.
And this week, as the writers chant and hold up their signs, you can bet that both sides will point to those shiny little discs we all know and love, insisting that they serve as an indication of what’s to come.
“The creative community is very angry at these companies, mostly about the DVD issue,” explained Marshall Herskovitz, the writer and producer of shows such as “thirtysomething” and films including “The Last Samurai.” “[The DVD residuals agreed] upon 10 or 15 years ago was a really bad deal, and everyone should admit that it was a bad deal. But, of course, the studios and the networks don’t admit it’s a bad deal. So you have a lot of angry talent, and on the other hand you have a lot of frightened executives. These new delivery systems — broadband and mobile and all that — they don’t know if they’re going to make money or not. And anger and fear are not a good combination.”
The studios continue to insist that the DVD gravy train has been good for everyone, and at a time when the average writer’s salary is estimated at $200,000 annually, it’s hard to disagree. But once you understand the “why,” the next logical question is “how” — as in, how will this dust-up impact the people we really care about, like Dr. McSteamy, Indiana Jones and Ugly Betty?
“A writers’ strike will be a very difficult thing for the production of both my shows,” admitted “The O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz, who launched the new series “Chuck” and “Gossip Girl” this fall. “It would mean we have to basically stop continuing to write scripts, and in television, productions are always waiting for that next script, and then the next one. It could be very, very disruptive to the productions.”
If you’ve already seen or read set reports from your favorite upcoming films (“Indy 4,” “Watchmen,” “The Dark Knight”), you can breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the way movies may sometimes seem, cameras don’t start rolling until a script is in hand.
Films being developed (sorry, “Green Lantern,” “Flash” and even the non-superheroes out there), however, won’t be going anywhere. “I’m contracted on two scripts right now, but they’ll be sitting unopened in their folders until the strike is resolved,” explained John August, writer of upcoming flicks like “Shazam!,” on his blog. “I have a deal to write a spec for Fox, but that will also have to wait. Pencils down means pencils down. I’m not writing any features or television until there’s a contract.”
The safest television programs are the minimally scripted reality shows (“American Idol” fans, rejoice!), which could actually multiply if the strike drags on so long that scripted programs begin running out. Sitcoms are likely to expire quickly, since writers are needed on set for each episode to punch up dialogue (if the strike drags on too long, the planned series finale for “Scrubs” might never be filmed). Shows with higher levels of drama require a locked script earlier, so they are expected to last a few additional episodes before running dry.
When, exactly, will that time come?
“Normally, we’d go off the air for Christmas break for about five weeks, and then we’d come back in January for another run of episodes,” explained Schwartz, who estimated that he has “11 or 12″ episodes of his shows in the can. “[With] a stop production now, it would mean that in January, we’d come back for an episode or two. And then we’d have to run repeats. … It would create a disruption of viewership for a lot of people.”
“I think that what it will affect is the amount of time between the episode that is finished when the strike began, and the episode that we start when a strike ends,” added Horowitz, who estimated that “Lost” has about seven unseen episodes to burn before viewers begin experiencing déjà vu. “What we’re talking about is an amount of time when there are no new episodes on the air to watch. At that point, the studios may decide to air reruns. They may decide to put on reality. We don’t know what they would do in that situation. But, unfortunately, there would not be ‘Lost’ episodes to see.”
To get an idea of where things might go, look no further than the late-night comedy shows. Big names like David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart will begin airing reruns this week, and this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” has already been canceled. In Los Angeles, Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” turned away guests like Garth Brooks on Monday, explaining that there would be no taping.
“It’s disappointing to us, because we love doing our shows and love working there. And we’re not going to be able to do that tonight,” sighed Chris Albers, a monologue writer for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” “It’s a stressful time for all of us.”
In New York and Los Angeles, big names like Tina Fey, James L. Brooks and Amy Poehler were sighted on picket lines, chanting and marching alongside their Guild brethren. A writer for Fox’s “Talkshow With Spike Feresten” was struck by a sedan entering Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood and was taken to a nearby hospital. The stress, it seems, has only just begun.
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