Arrggghhh. Sometimes I see or hear things that just piss me off. So far I've refrained from saying anything about the Writer's Guild strike because I already know that the production end of the business is trying to bone the talent end of the business. It almost goes without saying. Or so I thought, last night I got to overhear a conversation that set my teeth on edge. With the fully formed expertise of a tabloid lumpkin or Patrick Ross, I heard it declared that the writers were a bunch of lazy, greedy jerks pulling a stick up on the industry. Not only that, they make $200,000 a year, the rotten buggers.
The entertainment industry is a mystery to most people. Shocking figures and enormous sums of money are mentioned and a dozen or so faces become culturally ubiquitous. Those are the exceptions and not the norms. Writing and the rest of the talent end of the entertainment business comes with no guarantees. When you work, you work like crazy. 12 and 14 hour days are not a rarity and you work like that until the work is gone. Then you wonder what you're going to eat and how you'll pay the bills until the next gig comes along. A very, very few people make extravagant sums of money and the vast majority of the membership of the guilds, be they WGA, SAG or ACTRA up here in Canada live modestly. Writers drive clapped out Tercels, producers drive the BMWs.
The fight that is taking place has far reaching implications for the system by which the actual creators of the entertainments we enjoy get reimbursed. It will impact upcoming negotiations with on screen talent and the ripples of these little battles will be felt for years to come. At issue, the producers don't want to pay for the work of the writers (or performers) going out over the net. Since everything is moving toward the net as a means of distribution (the long fabled convergence) that's a slick way to roll back the whole process of residuals. The equivalent of telling authors or songwriters, sorry, no more royalties for you.
To illustrate, an interview with Ron Moore, show runner for Battlestar Galactica spells out the stakes.
"Fundamentally this is about the internet, and this is about whether writers get paid for material that is made for the internet or if they're paid for material that is broadcast on the internet that was developed for TV or movies." Moore shared a story to illustrate the scenario, saying "I had a situation last year on Battlestar Galactica where we were asked by Universal to do webisodes [Note: Moore is referring to The Resistance webisodes which ran before Season 3 premiered], which at that point were very new and 'Oooh, webisodes! What does that mean?' It was all very new stuff. And it was very eye opening, because the studio's position was 'Oh, we're not going to pay anybody to do this. You have to do this, because you work on the show. And we're not going to pay you to write it. We're not going to pay the director, and we're not going to pay the actors.' At which point we said 'No thanks, we won't do it.'"
"We got in this long, protracted thing and eventually they agreed to pay everybody involved. But then, as we got deeper into it, they said 'But we're not going to put any credits on it. You're not going to be credited for this work. And we can use it later, in any fashion that we want.' At which point I said 'Well, then we're done and I'm not going to deliver the webisodes to you.' And they came and they took them out of the editing room anyway -- which they have every right to do. They own the material -- But it was that experience that really showed me that that's what this is all about. If there's not an agreement with the studios about the internet, that specifically says 'This is covered material, you have to pay us a formula - whatever that formula turns out to be - for use of the material and how it's all done,' the studios will simply rape and pillage."
As a creator and stake holder in the entertainment biz I find it galling when the corporate conglomerates, that have centralized and monopolized the media, wave their arms in the air and whine about you and your kids and fans being pirates. They insist that they're being eaten alive and that they can't make a profit because the people that enjoy music and motion pictures are copying and down loading. They declare that the government simply must write them some brand new custom laws for the suing of children and the whole time they tell us that they are protecting the artists. Just like the hyenas are baring their teeth because they are guarding the baby zebra. I wonder if Prada makes eye patches because your nephew ain't the pirate. The pirate is the one with all the treasure and no scruples about how to get more of your loot.
To get a better idea of the scam that the producers are trying to pull, go have a nice visit with the eminent Mr. Rogers over at Kung Fu Monkey. And to get a better idea of where these issues line up with your own rights and freedoms online take a swing past Michael Geist's page. Michael is a law professor in Ottawa and an expert in issues to do with copyright reform, net neutrality and a world of electronic issues that will directly effect the laws and policies governing the state of digital information in the very immediate future.