Ronald Reagan led the Screen Actors Guild on strike in 1960 to get residual payments for movies shown on TV. Another fight over residuals made writers go on a 22-week strike in 1988. It may happen again this year if the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers fails to come to an agreement with the Writers Guild of America. And looming in the wings is the Screen Actors Guild, whose current contract expires next June.
The bone of contention is again residuals. The 12,000 writers represented by the Writers Guild of America wanted their residual rates doubled for their work replayed on DVD and all digital media such as cable TV and downloads to cell phones. The producers wanted to cut residuals out altogether until the companies producing movies or TV programs had recovered all their production costs. Since producers are notorious for hiding profits in inflated production figures, that met with a loud laugh, as well as other noises.
Most people thought the producers had taken that hard line simply as a bargaining position they didn’t expect to win, and on October 17, they withdrew it. However, they held firm on refusing to meet the writers’ demands. The contract between the producers and the writers expires Oct. 31. If they don’t come to an agreement by then, there will be a major strike.
Currently, writers receive about four cents for every DVD sold. That was an agreement reached in the 1980s when manufacturing home videocassettes was an expensive project. Now that those expenses have all but disappeared, writers believe the residual rate should increase. Producers say it’s too soon to set a pay schedule for digital downloads because the medium is “experimental.” They also say that production costs are no longer recouped at the box office as they were in the 80s, that younger audiences have defected to the internet, and that writers make plenty of money anyway.
The truth is that while a handful of screenwriters make big bucks paid upfront for a feature film or TV show, the majority are struggling to keep their heads above water while they wait for one of their scripts to find a producer and a director and a cast of actors who will use their ideas to create a hit. Most of them could not survive without residuals from movies or TV shows that are still in circulation.
So how do these negotiations affect other writers? In the entertainment world, of which publishing is a part, respect is shown strictly by money. If one arm of an entertainment world believes writers are of so little worth that they shouldn’t share in the profits their own work produces, the other arms will find it easier to follow suit, and book publishers could propose that no royalties or advances be paid to authors until the publisher has recouped all its publication costs. Since they already expect authors to foot the cost of marketing their own books, beginning and mid-list writers could end up in a greater financial hole than they already find themselves.
The contract between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Pictures and TV Producers can also affect the contracts a book’s author has with a movie or TV producer for film rights. Those contracts typically include residuals for the author for DVD and other digital media. If the new WGA-AMPTP contract excludes or reduces residuals for screenwriters, you can bet your buns that future contracts with book authors will be equally Saharan.
All of which is to say that I’m behind the Writers Guild all the way. I hope they don’t have to go on strike, but if it worked for Ronald Reagan, it should work for them.