When I turn in my final papers Dec. 18, I will be a Yale graduate. Like many recent graduates, my grand plans include moving into my mother’s garage and watching lots of television. However, unlike my fellow graduating sloths, I’m not unemployed. I’m on strike. As a proud member of the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) for two years now, I will join fellow scribes on picket lines for what will likely be a long strike.
On Dec. 7, the American Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) broke negotiations with the WGA after we refused their “New Economic Partnership” plan. The AMPTP issued the following statement: “We are puzzled and disheartened by an ongoing WGA negotiating strategy that seems designed to delay or derail talks.” So why are writers being so unreasonable?
The AMPTP’s “New Economic Partnership” plan is roughly the equivalent of a bully stealing your lunch money and calling you his partner in his “Hunger Satiating Plan.” The plan gives writers $250 per episode for one year of unlimited streaming video after a six-week period of free usage during which networks would still collect advertising revenue. By offering this flat rate, which is roughly 1 percent of what writers currently make per episode for network television, the AMPTP is ensuring that writers will not share gross revenues of what is destined to become a multi-billion dollar industry.
In addition to what might be more accurately called the AMPTP’s “Sucker Punch” plan, The AMPTP demanded that the WGA take a number of bargaining chips off the table including any plan that uses gross as a basis of negotiation. This ultimatum would effectively have writers negotiating against themselves by giving up their proposals for a fair new media plan as a precondition for negotiating about new media.
As it stands on television, WGA members get 2.5 percent of a film or television series gross revenue. That means for every buck networks make in ad revenues on television, writers get 2.5 cents. Networks also collect ad revenues for episodes they air online. Of that revenue writers see exactly zero, zilch, nada. The AMPTP insists that they shouldn’t have to pay writers because the online episodes serve as “promotional material.” They also insist that there isn’t enough money in new media to pay writers what they make on television, and they’re right, there isn’t … yet.
However, in the not too distant future, television and the Internet will merge and new media will become the dominant media. Where media conglomerates stand will make billions off this merger, writers will lose their shirts. Without a percentage deal in place that guarantees writers will continue to receive their 2.5 percent of revenue, the AMPTP will have no obligation to pay writers any residuals.
The only formula for new media that makes sense is one based on revenues where if they make money, we make money — that’s what we’re proposing. If, as they claim, there really is no money in new media, we can do the math; 2.5 percent of zero is zero. So why can’t we just take $250 per episode now and renegotiate when this fateful merger occurs, so you can get back to watching “The Office”? Because the AMPTP doesn’t play nice.
When home video emerged, studios asked writers to take a cut in residuals to help the fledgling market. We agreed with the promise that when home video became a viable industry, we would receive fair compensation. Home video is now a billion dollar industry. For every $20 DVD you buy, the writer receives four cents. When Tom Freston, deposed head of Paramount Students settled his contract he got a severance package of $60 million. The entire DVD compensation for all writers that year, was $56 million. We’re still waiting for our fair share.
Residuals are important because they comprise roughly 80 percent of most writers’ incomes. At any given time, half of the writer’s guild is unemployed. Writers rely on residuals to pay off mortgages, send their kids to school, and, well, eat. They can’t all live in my mother’s garage.
There will always be free media. As we speak, a friend of mine is illegally downloading episodes of Weeds (an act for which I recently slapped him across the face with a cloth napkin). But whenever studios, networks or producers collect money from advertisers and legal downloads on movies and television episodes, so should we. After all, we wrote the damn things.
So tune into Lifetime Jan. 5, 2008 and watch my movie “Queen Sized,” starring Nikki Blonsky (“Hairspray”) or catch it in reruns on Lifetime or the Lifetime Movie Channel. Please don’t download it. With the strike likely continuing until at least March, I could really use the residual paycheck.
Nora Kletter is a senior in Pierson College.