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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.