Strike, Day Two

Better than the first. Easier, certainly, since there wasn’t the panic of the unknown. I stayed at Paramount, half the time at the main gate, half the time at the smaller Gower gate. It was a very chanty day, but I was in the mood. One of the more popular ones from Gower gate:

I don’t know but I been told,
Sumner Redstone’s made of gold.
Makes his money off our sweat,
Won’t pay us for internet.

I don’t know but some folk say,
Paramount is late to pay.
Why we marching at this gate?
We got screwed in ’88.

Writers seen: Aline Brosh McKenna, who brought Astroburger for the crew; John Gatins of The Nines, hitting two studios in a day; We Are Marshall’s Jamie Linden, with whom I swapped McG stories; fellow Heroes: Origin refugee Michael Dougherty; and a drum-toting Angela Robinson. There was also the writing team, the kids’ book writer who was also on Alias (“season three, the bad one”), and a half-dozen other folks I only met by first name.

Other famous faces: Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight, Mark Steines of the same, Dr. Phil, and Blair Underwood, who Aline got to pose for a picture. It was a very iPhone-heavy picket line. I taught several people the iPhone camera trick. (The camera takes the picture when you release the button, so hold it down while you’re framing, then let up to “snap.” Greatly increases the odds of actually getting what you want.)

On that topic, there are a lot of great photos from the strike up on Flickr.

I’ll be back at Paramount tomorrow, if any readers care to join.

On the line

paramount strikeYesterday, I took my first tour of duty as a picketeer, joining a crew of fellow writers (and allied SAG members) at the front gates of Paramount. Later in the afternoon, I was redeployed at Sunset Gower Studios, where they shoot Heroes. 1

Since most readers will probably (hopefully) never go on strike, I thought I’d share some observations.

  • You recognize a lot of people. I walked in circles with D.V. DeVincentis, Chris Brancato, Tim Kring, Jeph Loeb, Jesse Alexander, J.J. Philbin, Thomas Lennon, Ben Garant, recent guest authorship-opinionator Howard Rodman, Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, along with special guest stars Kristin Bell and Dax Sheppard, who stopped by to chat.

  • Chanting has pros and cons, fans and haters. The Melrose Gate was very much into doing chants. Properly led, chants are fun and energizing. In the hands of a bad chant-leader, it’s a real drag, like forced karaoke. My afternoon shift included some chant-refugees, who fled overzealous, underinspiring chant hordes.2

  • Please honk. Really. A honk of support is surprisingly empowering, particularly if you can get a chain of cars to do it.

  • UPS is union. Several UPS drivers declined to cross our picket lines. I choose to believe those UPS drivers were carrying essential packages that deeply disrupted studio operations.

  • The signs are lighter than you’d think. When you first pick one up, you think, “How the hell am I supposed to carry this for four hours?” But it’s surprisingly not fatiguing.

  • I can advise while walking. I spent half an hour on the line answering questions from a young comedy writer who was going though the development process at Warner Bros. I’m happy to do it for blog-readers, by the way, if you care to join me at Paramount. I’ll be picketing afternoons there all this week.

  • Anyone can do it. WGA members need to sign in when they get there, but anyone interested can pick up a picket and start marching. If you fall into the “aspiring screenwriter” demographic, it’s a good way to get to know some working writers…while they’re not working. If you’re an aspiring actor, well, there are a lot of showrunners hitting the pavement.

On top of all the strike fun, I’m dealing with a sick toddler and some site-hackery, so apologies in advance for slow updates. It sometimes feels like I’m going in circles.

Oh, that’s right. I am.

  1. The journey from Paramount to Sunset Gower was about a 20 minute walk through parts of Hollywood I’d never seen on foot. It made me appreciate why disability-rights advocates get so frustrated with the sidewalks in Los Angeles. In many cases, they’re way too narrow, with a giant electrical pole right in the middle.
  2. A good chant is simple. Often, the witty ones don’t really work, because they lose their comedy after the third repetition, and are then merely stupid.

Pencils down

A few minutes ago, the WGA announced plans for the strike. Barring dramatic progress in negotiations over this weekend, it’s happening.

pencilI’ve largely avoided talking about contract negotiations and the strike,1 because I have no particular insight. I’m not on the WGA Board, nor the negotiating committee. But because I’m one of the higher-profile screenwriters, people give whatever I say unwarranted authority. And you know, I’m all about authority.

Now that we’re at the 23rd hour, I can clarify a little bit more about what’s going on, and where I stand.

Last night, I went to the largest WGA meeting in history, held at the Convention Center downtown. The negotiating committee explained the progress (and lack of progress) in negotiations with the AMPTP, and confirmed that a strike would be occurring. Representatives from helpful allies, including SAG and the Teamsters, also spoke. I was encouraged by the thoughtfulness of the negotiating committee, who are dedicated to achieving a fair deal without unwarranted suffering.

If you know absolutely nothing about the issues — or if you have to explain it to your grandmother, who’s upset that her favorite soap opera is off the air — here’s my very short summary of the situation.

  • Writers for film and television are paid a small fee when the things they write (movies and television shows) are shown again on re-runs or DVD. These are called residuals, and they’re much like the royalties a novelist or a songwriter gets.

  • Residuals are a huge part of how writers are able stay in the business. These quarterly checks pay the mortgage, particularly between jobs.

  • There’s widespread belief that the rate paid to writers for DVD’s is too low. It was set 20 years ago, when DVD was a nascent and expensive technology. DVD’s are now cheap and hugely profitable, yet the rate remains fixed.

  • Downloads will eventually supplant DVD’s. That’s why it’s crucial to set a fair rate for them now, and avoid the same trap of “let’s wait and see.”

  • There are other creative and jurisdictional issues (such as animation and reality television) which are also on the table. According to the AMPTP, residuals are the major stumbling block, however.2

Yesterday’s Variety and Hollywood Reporter featured this ad, in which showrunners from almost every drama and comedy on American television made it clear that they and their staffs would be doing no writing during a strike. Television will feel the impact of a strike long before features, because the season is only half-written.

But if there were an equivalent ad for feature writers, I’d sign it. As would every feature writer I know.

I’m contracted on two scripts right now, but they’ll be sitting unopened in their folders until the strike is resolved. I have a deal to write a spec for Fox, but that will also have to wait. Pencils down means pencils down. I’m not writing any features or television until there’s a contract.

So what will I do in meantime?

First, I’ll man the picket lines.

After that, I’ll turn my attention to the 100 other things going on in my life that don’t involve movies, television, or 12-point Courier.

Over the last five years, the craft has become a smaller proportion of my daily life. I’m a father, a technology nerd, and a trustee of my university. I’d like to get married. I’m helping to raise money for the new School of Cinematic Arts at USC. I’m starting an American arm of FOMO to help the orphans of southern Malawi.

I also write a lot of things that aren’t movies or TV shows. I really enjoyed the magazine writing I did this past year, and plan to do more. I wrote a play that I need to workshop. And I have this website, which is desperate for some re-tuning.

So I’ll be busy. And when the strike’s over, I’ll be excited to go back to the job I love.

  1. At least now we can retire the term “looming strike.”
  2. Nick Counter: “The companies believe that movement is possible on other issues, but they cannot make any movement when confronted with your continuing efforts to increase the DVD formula, including the formula for electronic sell-through,” he said. “The magnitude of that proposal alone is blocking us from making any further progress. We cannot move further as long as that issue remains on the table.” Link to Variety.

Heroes: Origins: Gone

I can confirm that the plug got pulled on the six Heroes: Origins episodes, one of which I was slated to write and direct. The possiblity of a WGA strike1 made NBC hesitant to prep a series they might never be able to shoot.

I had literally just hit “Print” on my revised outline when I got the call from Tim Kring. So, yeah. I’m bummed. But I get it: It was a lot of money to spend in a very uncertain time. And if the labor situation resolves in an orderly fashion, the series could find itself out of the deep freeze for next season.2

In case we never get to shoot it, my episode is/was called “Rehab.” Not everyone is good with their powers. Not everyone is good, period.

  1. I’m bucking convention by not saying “looming” in reference to the strike.
  2. One favorite topic of conversation is what will happen to this TV season if there is a prolonged break. It’s not unlikely we’ll get a second, shorter season to finish up the year.