film reporter

Scribes: Time to right those residual wrongs

There is rumbling afoot of a potential writers' strike — the WGA's contract with producers runs out Oct. 31. But what are the writers actually saying to each other?

Unwilling to go on record for fear of staking out positions that haven't been officially sanctioned by the guild, a number of writers agreed to step forward on the condition of anonymity. Many already are getting their financial houses in order, others are writing furiously to finish scripts for companies that are stockpiling. But one theme comes through loud and clear, and it's a heated paraphrase of the great writer Paddy Chayefsky: Scribes are mad as hell, and they aren't going to take it anymore.

"I think writers in general are getting sick of being kicked around. There's a lot of fury out there," says one screenwriter who writes for A-listers.

The big issue is money — specifically, money as it relates to such new technology as Internet downloads and VOD.

"The model for Internet downloads shouldn't be any different than the model for pay-per-view, or the model for DVDs, or any other means of watching entertainment. What the fuck is the difference how someone watches it? If they're watching it and I've written it, I should get paid for it," the writer says.

Writers feel they were snowed once, back in the 1980s, when they negotiated meager residuals in the then-nascent home entertainment market, and they don't want to be hosed again.

"We're in a period analogous to the '80s, when (the guild was) looking at the home entertainment residuals. Had they had the foresight to see where it was going, I don't think they would have made the deal that they made," one showrunner says.

"If you come up with an idea, and you've written on that idea, and get a credit on the movie, and it comes out on DVD, you're getting the same formula that was offered to you in the mid-1980s, at the advent of VHS, under the auspices of, 'This is a temporary model until we see how this we industry does,' " says a writer who has written for film and television. "That's not fair. We've seen how it does. It does great."

Adds the A-list writer: "For the studios to talk about Internet downloads as if it's some time in the future when I am watching, on a daily basis, movies on my television that I downloaded from the Internet, that's ludicrous. You can go to the Apple store at the Grove and for $250 hook something up to your television, and five minutes later be watching in high-def something that you've downloaded off the Internet. The future just got here." (The same writer says he doesn't download his own movies because he knows he won't get paid as much as he would if he bought it on PPV.)

This time, many writers believe that not only is this issue a unifying one within their own ranks, but it also unifies them with SAG and the DGA, both of whose contracts expire June 30, 2008. By pushing back their negotiations, writers are hoping the triumvirate will be more resistant to studios and producers' divide-and-conquer tactics.

"Now, the TV and feature writers have the same exact issue," one TV show creator says. "I don't think that everyone is going to be divided this time because I think everybody is fighting for the same thing."

But is new technology the endgame? Will downloaded movies and TV shows be as ubiquitous as iTunes? And will the DGA, notoriously independent, want to unite with the WGA? The script is still being written.
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