Whose lines are they anyway?

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Striking screenwriter Howard Rodman spoke to Socialist Review about challenging the studios over royalties from the "new media".

I believe that the development of "new media" is a technological shift comparable to the advent of TV and home video. But "new media" is a misnomer. I would cite one of my favourite picket line photos: a baby in a stroller with a sign which reads, "It's old media to me." Anyone who has studied this, or lives in a house with a teenager, already knows this. As William Gibson famously said, "The future is already here. It's just unevenly distributed."

In terms of the rights of writers and other creative workers, it could represent an even larger shift - away from a unionised workforce. The distinction between what comes in via a satellite dish, and is therefore called "television", and what comes in via a modem, and is therefore called "internet", gets smaller every day. The companies have to pay union rates, healthcare and pensions if it's called "television", and not if it's called "internet" - well, what do you think they're going to call it?

Some media coverage assumes a screenwriter's job brings glamour and wealth.

There were jibes in the press about "latte-sipping" writers, and the companies referred to us as "a picket line of millionaires". But in fact 48 percent of our members receive no income at all from guild-covered writing in any given year. If you average over five years, our members make $62,000 a year, which is comparable to the average income of all those who live in Los Angeles County. Of our members who are fortunate enough to work in a given year, the bottom quarter make an average of $37,700 per year. The media, of course, rarely compare the salaries of working writers to the salaries of the Murdochs and Immelts of the world.

There have been attempts to divide and rule, for example the bosses bleating about other workers being laid off as a result of the strike.

According to the polls, the public understands that the companies walked away from negotiations twice and spent months away from the table refusing to bargain. As in any strike, there will be animosity directed toward the strikers - but anyone who has dealt with a major corporation knows that the rapacity of our employers is unbounded.

The spirit of the strike is good - 1,000 picket each day. For a while I shared the community of picketers at the Paramount lot on the 5.30am shift. We walked in circles in the dark, like strange penitents. There were some wildly successful writers in our group, some wildly talented ones, some wildly dedicated ones - within five minutes it became clear we had more in common with each other than with our employers.

The studio bosses have always seen human creativity as a commodity from which to make a profit, but Hollywood also has a history of being a union town.

Hollywood is a union town only because those who create what is now called "content" banded together to protect themselves. The companies did all that they could, from founding a company union (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) to hiring brass-knuckled strikebreakers to turning water cannons on the picketers. If we're a union town now, it's only because our predecessors fought long and hard to make it that way.

Now after months of what can only be called shadow puppetry, the companies are for the first time engaged in real negotiations. We hope for a relatively rapid conclusion. We know the importance of our fight for the future, and we know, all of us, that none of our gains would have been possible had not we had the courage and resolve to put our pencils down.

Whether it was the prospect of viewers migrating from television never to return, whether it was the astonishment of major stockholders that the companies would sacrifice so much to save so little, whether it was the demands of the advertising community for refunds on their "upfront" ad buys, whether it was the competition between the conglomerates that could no longer be held in check, we may never know.

But we do know that if we are not successful, our children will not be able to make a living at our art or sullen craft. As Karl Marx once said, despite fluctuations in the price of beef, the sacrifice remains constant for the ox.


Howard Rodman is a member of the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America (West); a professor of screenwriting; the founder of the Guild's Independent Film Writers Caucus; a creative adviser to the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Labs; and the writer of the films Savage Grace and August, both of which are released this year.