18 November 2007

WGA Strike Memes

The current dispute between the WGA and the studio/production system1 is based on a number of memes that are not getting much, if any, attention. These memes all have implications for writers in all media and forms, so pay attention! In no particular order:

  • Studio spokescreatures have claimed that there isn't any pie to split with the writers, because they're not making much predictable money from so-called new media and/or DVD sales. Well, the bullshit about DVD sales should be pretty obvious, but the key point is that this assertion neglects the ability of the studios to raise prices to cover any increase in residuals due to writers. Admittedly, this might run into some resistance from advertisers... but the resistance will probably be minimal, because the necessary increase will be minimal. Presuming that the studios accepted that most-recent offer on the table from the WGA, this would result in a net increase in advertising rates of under 2%.
  • Studio spokescreatures and their apologists have also claimed that there isn't any pie to split because so many stars have gross-participation deals. This is the crassest kind of hypocrisy. The reason that stars have started demanding gross-participation deals is that "Hollywood accounting"2 and the contractual definition of "net profits" (as "there won't be any") have made that the only way that the actual creators of a filmed work can benefit from a blockbuster. In other words, Hollywood has brought "gross participation" on itself and is now whingeing about it.
  • The WGA is not entirely blameless in this dispute, but most of the problems with its system — such as the ridiculous and badly broken system for determining and "arbitrating" credits — result from attempting to impose simple solutions to complex issues arising from collaborative creation. Many of the worst abuses could be prevented merely by strict application of conflict-of-interest rules against both "arbitrators" and claimants to credits (in this example), and by paying attention to conflicts of interest when structuring systems and transactions.
  • And an abusive element of the Copyright Act is only making things worse: the definitions in § 101 and elsewhere that make a screenwriter's work almost inherently a work for hire. It's not a coincidence that the stronger unions in the UK haven't found a need to make such public protestations on the rest of their terms... primarily because their property wasn't stolen from them during the lobbying process.

  1. It's not "the producers" per se; thanks to the amusing contradictions in terminology between the feature and episodic distribution systems, a writer for episodic distribution (typically TV at this time) is often credited as "producer" for that episode.
  2. Cf., e.g., Lee v. Marvel Enters., Inc., No. 02-civ-8945 (S.D.N.Y. 17 Jan 2005).