the pulse

Winning hearts, minds begins with WGA's own

I know there are big complex issues dividing the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in advance of Wednesday's contract deadline that might result in a walkout by WGA membership. But before things veer out of control, allow me to reduce this to its simplest essence.

If you have no writers, you have no film. Or TV series. Or miniseries. You also don't have a "reality" series, the ridiculous notion that those aren't at least partially scripted notwithstanding. If producers insist on keeping those projects non-WGA, then I'm wondering if they might at least agree to sign a stipulation to the effect that no one on the shows ever were made to do or say anything based on an instruction read off of a piece of paper or computer monitor. Methinks not.

This fight over so-called unscripted programming — which is no longer a simple matter of semantics but quite frankly one of outright deception — is certain to be one of the key stumbling blocks to any agreement. It's at the core of the division even more so than anything involving shares of the Internet and DVD pie or even any refashioning of how residuals get paid.

The AMPTP believes it has an ace up its sleeve this time in the event of a WGA strike. It's the ability of the broadcast networks to plug in reality TV shows for months and months, even beyond slating what's already stockpiled. Producers get a free pass because the WGA has allowed the charade that these are unwritten to roll forth without banding against it in unified and forceful fashion. It would seem that if the union doesn't hold firm now, it never will.

Yet even this vital issue is ultimately less germane than the underlying one that drives the whole deal: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Writers may be the ones who create the words uttered on camera, but in the event of a protracted strike and a concurrent war of words and wills, that will oft be forgotten. This is because writers too often are forgotten themselves. They remain the captain of a ship on which they're looked upon as mere deckhands. And more often than not, their insecurity compels them to accept it.

To some degree, of course, that insecurity is well founded. The writer's existence is utterly nomadic and provisional. Even the most talented scribes can go years between projects, which is why the residual formula isn't about supplying writers with extra money for sitting on their ass but keeping them financially afloat during the inevitable down periods.

Oh yeah. And then they turn 40 and get the door slammed in their face. They might as well just call it the Masochists Guild.

What's so paradoxical about all of this is the mere fact that, in the entertainment world, while producers are the arms and legs, writers are the brain and heart. It has always been thus. One can't function without the other, and the joke is that contract negotiations typically involve each side doing its damnedest to convince the other that its services aren't really all that essential. You can see how messy this might get when a project's writer and producer are one and the same. Hello, schizophrenia.

But trust me when I say that I've studied physiology and know this stuff. If the brain quits functioning and the heart stops beating, the arms and legs aren't going to move for very long, either. A successful deal for the WGA is contingent on its using that brain to understand the clout writers carry — and its heart to endure what's sure to be a world-class pummeling.
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