The Circle of Strike

Nothing cheered me more than when a small group of my Thesis TV writing students, on their own, joined the Writers Guild of America picket lines one morning this week across the street from our classroom.

Marching shoulder to shoulder with the professional scribes they aspire to be, they understood they were fighting for the preservation of the writing profession in television and film, as we know it and as they hope it will still be by the time they get hired.

WGA is Gorges! #ICwriters

Of course, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. 

The night before, for their last class of the semester at the Ithaca College Los Angeles Program, I invited two working TV writer-producers, who also happen to be former students that sat exactly where they did 10 or so years ago, to hang out and give them advice, assurance and a reality check on what it takes to persevere and have a career.

Writers being who they are, regardless of age, the discussion was alternately funny, brutally honest and incredibly thorough.  It smartly told you everything you needed to know, and then some.

I mean, let’s face it, give people who are hired to speak to the page in words instead of out loud a stage and, well, it’s hard to shut us up.  Especially when we have a captive (Note: and younger) audience.

It’s the best!

Nevertheless, it felt like there was a real meeting of the minds with this group and their elders, both of whom are still significantly younger than The Chair. (Note:  don’t even ask).

Three generations of writers with many of the same questions and stories about process, money, anxiety and creativity.  We were all so different yet undeniably and incredibly similar.

The deep down belief in one’s talent bundled with the sneaky self-doubt.  The humor covering the sensitivity, or the angst masking the hysteria of the insult lines we’d never have the nerve to speak.  The eagerness to be heard and the desperate desire to tune out those who refuse to see us, or will never understand us, or simply piss us off.

Nothing has changed at all.

We’ve all been there

It reminded me of that moment in the eighties when I was lucky enough to meet the great screenwriter Julius Epstein, who along with his brother wrote a little classic film we call Casablanca. 

It was at a party held by a writing mentor friend of mine that Mr. Epstein, then well into his eighties, was deliciously delightful and brutally honest.

To paraphrase his thoughts about studio notes on his most famous film:

Do you think they had any idea what it was about or any suggestions that made any sense?  No!!  Just nod along and pretend that they do.  Then go off and do what you want.  Idiots!

Honestly, I don’t even think I’m embellishing.

Just keep spinning

Several years later, when I attended a big meeting at the WGA Theatre in Beverly Hills around the time the guild was about to strike over DVD residuals, among many other issues, former WGA president Frank Pierson, by then a veteran writer-director, had pretty much the same message.   However, he made it in a pointed, much more public statement to an entire auditorium of writers.

His rebuttal to those afraid of striking for what they deserved was something akin to:  How do you think the union came about?  This is what we HAVE to do.  If we didn’t do it we wouldn’t even have what we have now.  If it were up to them, we’d have nothing.

And know the only reason I am not giving Mr. Pierson’s dialogue its own paragraph is that I am 100% sure his words were more laceratingly surgical and eloquent than I could ever be.

Yet, message-wise, they’re the same.  And I passed it along to my students, all of whom were also astounded to learn that before the fifties not only were there no residuals or any share of any profits, but that you could be forced to share credit with a producer’s nephew who never wrote a word of your script if the studio so desired.

Truly the Wild West

Because of these men, and many thousands of other women and men like them, writers who are fortunate enough to land a job telling stories in film and TV make a really good living. 

They realized it was their stories that were reaching millions of people and raking in hundreds of millions in profit for their employers, and that it was more than fair that they be compensated in ways that were commensurate to their very essential contribution.

What Mr. Epstein and Mr. Pierson, in particular, were saying, in their own inimitable ways, is that you have to stand up for yourself, especially when it’s tough.

They were also telling us that rather than think of the people that do the same job as you do as your competition, see them as your teammates.

And for that matter, think of any member of an entertainment union as a comrade.

Solidarity Forever!

That’s what the message was from Lindsey Dougherty, the tattooed secretary-treasurer or Teamsters Local 399, a few weeks ago to several thousand writers assembled at the Shrine Auditorium in support of the 2023 strike.

If we all want to get what’s ours, we are going to have to fight for it tooth and nail. If you throw up a picket line, those f—n trucks will stop, I promise you.

It was not always the case that entertainment workers above and below the line, or any industry workers for that matter, were this united.  But recent advances in technology have shaken up the business (Note: and many other businesses) and significantly changed the means of access and distribution all across the board.

Not to mention the rise of a new brand of knee-jerk nationalistic fascism that has seemingly caused every human roach to crawl out from every venomous rock they were hiding under throughout the world.  They unite the rest of us, too. 

Um… yikes!

Yes, there are specific issues for currently striking writers.  Among them are:

– The producers/studios/streaming platforms refusal to negotiate on the future of AI , e.g. using AI as a way to eliminate, or at least curtail, the future employment of writers. 

– The unwillingness of streamers, in particular, to come up with a realistic formula for calculating residuals to writers, and other creatives like actors and directors, that properly assesses the explosion of streaming revenue compared to what it was just five years ago.

– The determination of producers and studio heads to cut writing staffs in half or more on all of their series by using new technology and new distribution patterns as a way of turning writing into a gig profession of day-player free-lancers or cut rate full-time employees.

– A flat out “no” from all of the aforementioned when asked to address decades-long ongoing issues like multiple free rewrites for feature writers, citing the excuse of team spirit, or allowing animation writers across the board entry into the writer’s guild to which they have unjustly been denied because of a century old, outdated, industry categorization spear-headed by none other than the late, and very long dead, Walt Disney.

No doubt haunting us from his mansion!

The root of most of these issues, e.g. the changing ways we watch TV and film, will cut across the board to every member of every union when their contracts inevitably expire (Note: The DGA and SAG next month).  Prolific actor Seth Rogen, known for also being a stoner but on this subject quite coherent, recently put it in starkly simple terms.

I’m personally distressed by not having any sense of how successful these shows and movies we make for streaming services are. The secretiveness only makes me think that they’re making way more money off of all of us than they want to share with anybody. These executives are making insane salaries that you would only make if you are running an incredibly profitable business.

If there is one thing that Gen Z understands and wants is for others to be authentic and real, especially with them.  You might think they’re glued to their phones but that’s a meme about who they are from another generation’s mind. 

Don’t underestimate Gen Z!

In fact, they are actually listening and watching US.  And they will strike accordingly when they don’t like what they see and hear.

That’s why my students voluntarily took to the streets when two writers took the time to speak with them in person and asked them to join in the fight to protect the future they hoped to have.

And why many more will follow in a worldwide, multi-generational battle against corporate greed, nee fascism, all across-the-board…and win.

The Lion King – “Circle of Life”

Sometimes It Takes a Long, Long Time

This week the Internet broke over an hour of television that traced the relationship of two middle-aged gay men during a fictional apocalyptic pandemic. 

It was the third episode of the gargantuan new hit HBO series The Last Of Us, which is based on what is acknowledged to be one of the best videogames ever made.

As a middle-aged gay guy who has never been into videogames and who long ago gave up being mainstream, this was quite a shock.

OK, I did dabble with this Queen.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasant one, since it vaulted one of my favorite records of all time, Linda Ronstadt’s 1970 hit, Long, Long Time, to the top of the 2023 streaming charts, where it continues to stay. 

The teenage me, who longed for love in exactly the way Linda did in that song, could never have imagined our anthem could sit, sit, sit there for this long, long, long of a time.

Yes, Linda, Yes!

The same shock might be said for those of Asian descent who have watched the film Everything Everywhere All At Once emerge at the top of the pack of award contenders for film of the year.

Its latest achievement was to lead the recently announced Oscar nominations by picking up 11 nods.  That includes a first time ever best actress chance for an Asian identifying woman, its star, Michelle Yeoh.  (Note: Okay, back in 1936 the biracial Merle Oberon was nominated in that category.  But she never came out as part Asian nor was it EVER discussed). 

Icon business

Sure, a non-English language film like Parasite shockingly won best picture in 2019 but it wasn’t a Hollywood made film about an American family.  It also wasn’t the kind of mainstream American box-office hit using newer American cultural storytelling techniques inspired by the younger skewing gaming industry.

One can only imagine how encouraging EEAAO is for aspiring Asian artists coming of age right now in post insurrection America.  Not to mention any young person who longs to see film or TV hits, both commercial and artistic, that offer up stories in more varied and less traditional ways that they can relate to.

I did not have “rocks with googly eyes making me cry” on my Bingo card

As a consumer and writer barely clinging to middle age, I will admit it took me a bit to get on both The Last of Us and EEAAO bandwagons.

I watched the first episode of the HBO series when it debuted a few weeks ago and was mixed.  The acting was good but it was so frenetic and with so many characters and situations that were vaguely defined that I ultimately decided I didn’t care much.  I raised this with a group of college seniors who I instruct in TV writing and they assured me everything would become clear soon and to stick with it. 

As most adults do, I promised to maybe take a look again with very little intention to do so.

Just being real

Until the explosion of week three when middle-aged gay, gay, gay romance became a TV thing and a mainstream videogame story instantly became more inclusive by way of Linda Ronstadt.

I’m listening…

The same thing happened with EEAAO, a movie I admired for its audaciousness but lost me in the second act and didn’t do much for me emotionally when I saw it the first time.

But with all the praise and Oscar nominations (Note: Awards that I still pretend are very little indication of anything by ignoring my lifelong obsession with them), converged with the fact that I was now facing TWO thesis TV and Film writing classes to whom the film’s narrative and execution HEAVILY spoke to, even ever intractable me had to take another look.

And am I glad that I did.

Letting myself get into it!

Not only did it teach me that, okay, I can occasionally be wrong about a few things, but that there are infinite ways to tell a story. 

And just because your limited mind isn’t used to them that is no reason to shut the barn door and sit in the slop with the rest of the close-minded pigs in your sty.

(Note: Pig sty and barn door analogies?  Really?)

Linda would approve!

It also once again taught me something else.

Representation Matters.

These days that term seems to come across as a political diatribe.  A must have, a demand, or at least an incessant want of too many of the “woke.”  Or woke mob.  Or… well… choose your adjective and noun depending on who is speaking.

But all it really means is a longing to be seen and heard.   A path to get listened to and a means to include oneself or one’s group in the world that might also open up the world’s hive mind.

Did I mention how good Linda is???

It’s a desire, ironically, to be acknowledged as a part of the pack.

Now this doesn’t stop you from still being an outsider, or prevent you from striving to stand out and lead that world pack in a different direction.  Just as it won’t prevent you from continuing to be stubbornly indifferent, ahem, to anyone unlike you and yours.

But in order to ensure the personal freedom to live our lives the way we see fit (Note: As long as we are not causing others physical harm), those in the pluralities and underrepresented need to be visible and seen in order to get included.

We see you!

One of the easiest ways to do this is in your choices, and tolerance, for films, television or anything else that might diverge from what you consider on first view to be your own very, very VERY good taste.

This goes especially for those barely clinging to middle-age.

Linda Ronstadt – “Long Long Time”