Friday, January 11, 2008

Ink stained wretches and greedy producers: Whose gun is pointed at whose head?

Despite all the glitz, glamour and multi-million dollar Hollywood deals you keep hearing about, the typical screenwriter is little more than a penurious wretch.

As figures provided by a screenwriters website called The Blank Page indicate, while a few screenwriters at the tippy-top can earn more than half a million bucks , almost half of the union’s members earn zipp-o in any given year. The typical schlub-with-a-keyboard probably pulls down around $45,000 – but only in years when he or she is able to find screenwriting work. That's usually about every other year.

Sadly, the writers’ share of the Hollywood pie is pathetic. These are guys who make a significant part of their $45,000 (or up to $663,000 if they’re on the very top of the hill) from residuals – the additional money paid to writers and others, when a movie goes on TV or gets "distributed" in other ways other than in movie theaters.

The theory behind the practice is a good one. If the movie bombs and nobody wants to see it – or if the script is commissioned but the production company never films it or never distributes the film – writers get paid a relatively small amount for their work. But if they write a hit that these days can generate over $1 billion for a producer, they should share in the profits.

Except they don’t really “share.” In some film and TV distribution categories they get something closer to a pathetic tip. Suppose you go to a retail store and buy a DVD of your favorite movie for $10? Want to guess what share the writer gets?

Four cents, give or take a few tenths of a cent.

This from a business where the executive producer of the Law and Order shows earns $200 million a year and the producer of The Sopranos was earning a "mere" $20 million. 

The Screenwriters are also fighting to have the writers of cartoon films covered by their agreement. Right now, if you write animation – or reality TV shows – you don’t even get the same sorry deal the screenwriters get.

Oh, and top production and network executives get "golden parachutes" worth millions of dollars if they get fired. Lots of screenwriters in a similar situation get to wait on tables.

Last night, I happened to have dinner with two Writers Guild members and a literary agent, none of them in the starving artist class. One of the writers is an Academy Award winner, the other isn’t doing too badly either, and the agent is one of those high-powered dudes who builds up best-selling authors and takes a cut when he sells the rights to their novels to the movies.

These are guys who’d be making pretty darn good money if the strike ended. But their support for the strike to the bitter end was so strong you could almost break your teeth on it.

What’s going on here?

"The producers are trying to break the union,” one of the writers told me. “That’s why the screen actors are backing us up. They know that if we cave in, they’re next.

Meanwhile, “The producers are refusing to negotiate, period,” he reminded me.

In addition, the producers have rejected binding arbitration by an impartial arbitrator.

Greed, a grab and a gun

It sounds to me like the producers are just trying to make a grab at keeping the writers’ residuals.

There are some exceptions, of course. These include David Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants; United Artists; and now the Weinstein Brothers Company, all of which have settled with the writers. But these are all small players. It's the greedy corporate biggies like Fox, NBC, Viacom and others that are trying to kick around the hungry writers.

What do the producers have to say about refusing to negotiate?

“We're not going to negotiate with a gun to our heads—that's just stupid," says Nick Coulter, the negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

But of course. If there’s no threat to their economic well-being, the producers don’t have to give a thing. That’s why producers earning double-digit millions want to be the ones holding the guns to the heads of the $45,000-a-year people who come up with the ideas that make the producers rich.

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