As talks are about to resume Monday on the final elements that many hope will lead to a new deal for the Writers Guild Of America, we wanted to lend some perspective and give voice to the TV and feature writers whose fortunes will be tied directly to the deal their union makes. This is the first in a quick succession of five questions we asked a panel of 10 writers. Here are their responses, and hopefully other writers will be moved to comment about the issues that worry them most as their work is monetized in this fast-changing digital age. (Note: Writer #2 didn’t reply to this question.)
DEADLINE: How has your ability to make a living improved or deteriorated since the WGA strike and why?
WRITER #1: Directly, I lost at least one job so, for me, that is a loss of over $1 million. I was fortunate to survive the strike without the terrible ramifications that hit many of my friends and colleagues. It deeply impacted a number of my friends. I know writers, talented writers, that had to mortgage their houses or lost their houses because they were not set up for a situation where there was no money coming in month after month. I loaned money to friends during the strike who were really hurting. It was a very hard time for working writers and the ramifications of the strike hurt writers to this day.
WRITER #3: I am one of the fortunate few writers to sell a spec script after the strike and use that momentum to get some decent feature and television work. However, the amount of feature work I got off an incredibly hot script is not nearly what I would’ve expected pre-strike. It allowed me to get on a lot of lists where I could pitch for high-profile assignments. But these were always against multiple writers. I don’t think my career has deteriorated but I also think I’m the exception. In general, the feature market has been horrible post-strike. However, I don’t think this is all a function of the work stoppage. I think a lot of it has to do with new trends in the feature world (no DVD sales for tentpole movies, less studio films, studio obsession with IP over originals, etc.).
WRITER #4: My ability to make a living has improved since the strike, but I’m in a very fortunate category of the Guild: I’m a TV drama writer. There’s a lot of demand for TV dramas right now, and the strike doesn’t seem to have had any negative impact on that. If anything, things have gotten better since the strike — there are more outlets, more creative options, more shows, more jobs, and more respect for TV drama writers than there has ever been in the years I’ve been working as a writer/producer in TV. There might be fewer chances to make a killing, but there are more chances to make a living.
WRITER #5: I was already working and a member of the Guild in ’07/’08, but I’d only been at it for a few years (mostly rewrites and specs), and I think I probably benefited from the strike in some coincidental ways that are by no means indicative of any larger trends. Things have improved, but that really has nothing to do with the strike. I was lucky enough to establish precedents before the strike, so for my entire career I had never had a one-step deal on a project (even rewrites)…until now. My most recent deal is one-step. I was resistant to it — for many reasons, not least of which, I think it’s creatively detrimental…and I resent the inevitable forced producer pass that will ensue — but took it because it’s now basically non-negotiable at many studios, and it came with other financial perks.
WRITER #6: ”Changed” would be a better word. Making a living from studio open writing assignments is nigh on impossible as that world has changed forever. Less movies made. More writers invited to pitch. There is such a small chance of success it is better to concentrate on other aspects of career development: specs, producer relationships and TV. OWAs are a nice bonus if they happen. And the days of blind deals were effectively killed by the strike. The landscape of new buyers and opportunities has increased exponentially for those of a more entrepreneurial mind. This is exciting. New media is exciting. If you think of yourself as just a movie writer, you’re dead. Have to hustle every avenue. Which is fine.
WRITER #7: Way way worse…The entire business has nosedived in the past five years. Quotes — which were earned through hard work and success — are irrelevant. Residual checks are 10% of what they once were. And frankly, studios have almost no work to give. I actually feel bad when I do general meetings with execs. These guys have like 2-3 projects each…they don’t realize they’re dead-men-walking job-wise. The Open Writers Assignment grid that agencies print used to be as thick as a phone book — now it’s thinner than a gossip magazine. And every single project starts with: “In a dystopian future…”. You used to have the feeling that the movies you wrote had at least a little chance of getting made — and in my case, several of them did. Now it feels like a total fantasy…you just cash the checks…polish other people’s scripts…and assume nothing will happen.
WRITER #8: I personally was always opposed to the strike and profoundly annoyed at the ginned-up militant attitude of the leadership which trickled decisively into the membership. The core realization I had then which has since turned out to be true was that any gains we successfully negotiated (such as the foot in the door in Internet residuals) were essentially destroyed because the companies had an opportunity to look closely at business processes whose inefficiencies favored writers (limitless pilot development, large writing staffs, two-step feature deals, etc.). Their merciless trimming of these inefficiencies combined with the massive contraction in development led to a horrific period. My career pretty much fell apart in the two years after the strike and then sharply rebounded since. I could barely get in the mix on projects at a fraction of my fee during 2009 and first half of 2010. The past three years, however, have been the most profitable of my entire career. I will clear over $1 million this year in features and TV. The “gold rush” in TV helped. (One agent told me there are now in excess of 50 vetted buyers in TV. Friends and I don’t even bother to pitch the networks anymore. Their money isn’t worth the creative headache.) Features, oddly, has never been better from my perspective. But this is counter-trend — the feature jobs now come ONLY from a direct working relationship and personal history with senior execs (preferably studio heads). Pre-strike there was a real “open writing list” and consideration given to new writers. There really isn’t any such thing as an “open writing assignment” any more, and in the rare circumstance that the buyers open their minds and lists to new writers, it is in the form of allowing those writers to Sweepstakes Pitch. This Closed Shop actually favors writers like myself who are in the system already, but this laziness/fear of risk prevents new voices from emerging, which is ultimately bad for everyone.
WRITER #9: Things have been going well since then, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the “gains” of the strike.
WRITER #10: I wasn’t part of this back then.