Monday, Dec. 3, 2007
Strike Out? Writers Guild on the Line December 03, 2007 | 04:07 PM On Nov. 5 a picket line went up in Hollywood for the first time in years, pitting the writers of crummy multiplex movies against their greedy studio bosses. The issue concerns how big a slice of revenue from Internet downloading each side will keep. It's not exactly the coal miners of Appalachia versus big mining or Cesar Chavez against the produce growers in terms of stimulating working class solidarity. Many consumers may be tempted to put a pox on both houses and retire to their favorite DVDs. Sure, there are talented writers in Hollywood but, except for a minority of movies and a slowly growing number of cable shows, you could be forgiven for not noticing. It would be just as hard to find anyone in the offices of the studios or networks who actually cares about producing good work. And yes, the Writers Guild of America is right for insisting on a fair share for its members. Like most of us on the sidelines, I have no proposals to make and am willing to let the negotiators work out the percentages. For the majority of Americans the strike is of concern for its impact on television. The late night shows went to reruns immediately. What? Letterman is just a sock puppet that can't arch his own eyebrows without the aid of a writer? Shocking! The problem will soon spread from late night to prime time as comedies and dramas will be forced to repeat old episodes if the strike continues. One thing: like automakers in the old days that kept the plants running in anticipation of an autoworkers walk-out, the networks busily stockpiled scripts earlier this year. Writers Guild members, despite the looming shutdown, were eager to take the money before running to the picket line. The networks have enough episodes of "Lost" and "House" to last through the end of the year and enough of "The Simpsons" through spring. It might be late January before most programming peters out. In any case, "American Idol" and its ilk will continue unaffected. Some say a long strike will only further cement the position of so-called reality shows. There are movies in the Hollywood pipeline for months to come, including all of this season's wannabe megahits and Oscar contenders as well as plenty of schlock to fill the always lean months of January through March. Some movies are in the can for later in 2008. But because of the lengthy production cycle for major motion pictures, a protracted strike will inevitably leave gaps in the release schedule. According to rumor, the studios are stepping up efforts to scout for American indie product at Sundance and other film festivals and may even take a longer look at foreign films. Of course, it would be great if a few good smaller films were picked up in an unintended consequence of the strike. Given the solipsism of many American indie filmmakers, however, audiences may be smaller than theater owners and studios would like. Many moviegoers might opt for microwave popcorn and Netflicks instead of leaving home to watch dorky movies about dysfunctional families and lovelorn young professionals. Both sides in the current strike have an interest in settling before year's end. Rational self-interest, however, guarantees nothing in Hollywood or anywhere else.