Monday, November 05, 2007

Remember, remember the Fifth of November

Like most non-union writers, the WGA strike probably isn't going to have a huge impact on my life or career -- yet. And yes, as of this posting early Monday morning, the strike is happening. The decision was made on Friday and the time was set for Monday morning. Apparently there were some last-minute attempts at working out a deal but those attempts failed. If, as reported, they involved John Wells being the go-between for studio heads and union moderates, it may be for the best that an eleventh-hour deal wasn't reached. At least if it meant avoiding a repeat of Wells's last brokered deal that averted a strike in 2001 (now seen as a big loss for writers on DVD residuals).

Residuals are the heart of the dispute this time around as well. In a nutshell, writers want a better deal on internet downloads and other new media. The Alliance Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) initially wanted to just kick the can down the road with a "study" of how the new content delivery was going to work. Which was then upped to "if you don't accept that, we'll scrap the whole residual system altogether." Having the predictable effect of galvanizing rank-and-file support for the Guild leadership against the AMPTP. The producers took the residual rollback off the table (good) but remained adamant about keeping parity between the rates for DVDs and downloads (not good).

Could the union have done more to move negotiations along prior to zero hour? Probably. Trying to double payments for DVD residuals, at this point, is a losing battle for a a few reasons. First, one of the few things I learned from my employment lawyer colleagues is that, in collective bargaining when a concession is made, it's hard to later revisit that issue in subsequent contracts. The DVD residual ship sailed a long time ago. That's a chit that the WGA (and I assume at some point will) throw to the producers. Second, although it's not going to happen overnight, the DVD format will go the way of the CD, VHS, cassette tape, LP, cylinder, etc. Eventually, everything will be digital, online, downloadable, and stored on other media. It's already happening with standard definition DVDs. They've only been around a little more than 10 years. It took 30 years to kill videotape. Format life cycles are getting shorter and shorter. Even if a single hi-def DVD format emerges victorious, I'd wager it only prolongs discs' as content delivery by a few more years. Other union issues, such as organizing reality TV/animation and product integration into works, are potential concessions that could be made in the interest of furthering discussions. The future residual rate for downloads and new media is where the action's at.

But because downloads are the future, that makes it all the more crucial for the union to get this one right. As a writer hoping to one day be a union member, I think it's worth going to the mattresses over. Easier for me to say, since I only have a mere expectancy in future residuals of any kind. There are a lot of people in town who work below the line on tv shows and features who could really be in for a hurting if the strike drags on. Which it very well could. Although a quick deal may, theoretically, be in the work, I have to think the guild would not use the nuclear option of a strike if it didn't intend to cause the AMPTP some measurable harm. Most immediately, the remainder of this television season and pilot season (which starts in January) for next fall's schedule. So now that the strike is underway, absent a total 180 by the producers on linking DVD and new media, I expect it to last at least until after the holidays. A tough situation for all concerned. It's not a fight that anyone on either side of the table really wanted (as far as I can tell). But now that it's here, a fight worth putting bodies on the line to win.


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