The Writers Strike on the web

WGA Strike 2007I got a few emails recently about the current writers strike in the US and whether it would have an effect on any films or TV shows showing in the UK.

Initally I’d held off writing anything in depth about it as it felt a little distant from me, plus other people were covering it better and in more depth. But to make up for my slackness, here is a longer-than-usual post on the whole affair.

The short answer to the question as to whether it will affect shows in the UK is “probably (given how many US shows are imported here), but it depends how serious the strike gets”. For a longer answer, more information and useful links about the strike itself, read on.

If you follow it on the web, you might note how much of the coverage comes not only from established media but from different journalists, bloggers, people inside the entertainment industry and the strikers themselves.

To recap, it is a strike by the Writers Guild of America (on both East and West coasts) that started last Monday. The WGA is the union that represents film, television, radio and new media writers working in the United States.

Strike outside Warner Bros

Every three years, the Writers Guilds negotiate a new contract with the studios and the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers)- the body which represents them. The dispute is about the new contract and the issue of residuals – the payments writers receive when their work is shown in different formats (e.g. DVD, cable, foreign TV).

Unsurprisingly, the writers feel they are being paid too little, whilst the studios don’t want to pay them more with uncertainty over new formats and how the industry will be affected by changes in technology. The WGA has proposed doubling the residual rate for DVD sales, which would mean a payment of about eight cents (up from the current four cents) for every DVD sold.

However, aside from the DVD dispute is the much more pressing issue of residuals for online content. At the moment, the WGA has no deal with the studios regarding films or TV shows sold via iTunes or streamed or downloaded online. This is a huge sticking point as it is widely assumed that online distribution will take over from DVD as the primary means for distribution.

Added to the already poisonous atmosphere, there is much lingering resentment from the 20-year-old deal the WGA signed for home video – in essence the writers felt that they were not compensated for the hefty profits the studios made when DVD gradually took over from VHS in the last 10 years.

Strikers in New York

Now the WGA is refusing to make any similar concessions in for so-called “new media” – which they would argue is not so new after all. WGA members are determined that the next deal can’t be like the residuals they got for DVDs.

However, the studios the studios have refused to consider changing the formula. Their argument is that DVD sales are necessary to offset rising production and marketing costs. They have further insisted that the current DVD formula be applied to residuals in New Media (which covers any content sold via the web e.g. iTunes or download sites like Amazon Unbox).

They would also probably argue that developments in technology are radically altering the entertainment landscape and point to the music industry as an example of how difficult predicting the future can be.

YouTube didn’t exist three years ago and now copyrighted content appears there daily (albeit in 10 minute chunks). And what is the residual rate really worth if the next generation of users are downloading films and TV shows for free from sites like The Pirate Bay?

Birds eye view of strikers

I guess the the studios feel they can ride out a strike – the last major one in 1988 dragged on for 5 months and cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million. There are contingency plans (such as stockpiled shows and repeats) but the situation will get much much worse if other entertainment unions decide to join them in a wider shutdown of productions.

In July next year, the key contracts of the other two major industry unions – the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Directors Guild of America (DGA) – are set to run out. If all three can’t broker an agreement with the studios, they would almost certainly engage in a wider strike that would cripple Hollywood.

What’s interesting about following a story like this on the web is the depth and breadth of information from the parties involved and those commenting on it.

Here are some sites and links that are worth checking out:

Plus, there are plenty of established bloggers providing excellent coverage as the strike goes on:

If you see any useful links then do leave them in the comments section below or just email me.

In the meantime check out this video by Field of Dreams writer and director Phil Alden Robinson in which he explains the history of the WGA and why the strike has happened: