Hollywood Woes: Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America Strikes
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SPOKESMAN: Everyone is wondering who will take home film’s highest honor.
JEFFREY KAYE: To outsiders, this is Hollywood: A landscape of glamour, fame and million-dollar paychecks. But this is just the public face of a multi-billion-dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of workers in the United States, an industry facing union conflicts that threaten to shut down Hollywood’s dream factories, temporarily put thousands out of work, and alter America’s film and television diet. On movie sets across Los Angeles, everyone is talking about potential strikes by writers and actors this summer.
DENISE FISCHER, Makeup Artist: With the stock market going up and down as it is, you know, we’re already, you know, somewhat headed for a recession, and if this happens, it’s going to be devastating.
JEFFREY KAYE: So how might you be affected?
CARMINE GOGLIA, Scenic Artist: Well, quite substantially. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and if there’s a strike, you know, I’m worried about it.
JEFFREY KAYE: The dispute is over Hollywood’s growing wealth. Writers and actors want a larger slice of the entertainment industry’s global economic pie.
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: (on phone) Does he want to do talk shows? Is he involved in talk show stuff?
JEFFREY KAYE: Talent agent Christopher Barrett is a veteran Hollywood hand, President of the Metropolitan Talent Agency, which represents more than 250 actors, writers and directors.
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT, Metropolitan Talent Agency: You know, it’s hard to calculate the effect of Hollywood on the world. Historically, people have looked at Hollywood and they’ve… They consider it a frivolous industry and they think we do frivolous things– we make entertainment. But the reality is, I think we are the second biggest export industry in the country.
JEFFREY KAYE: The contract with unions representing 135,000 film and TV actors expires July 1. If they strike, big names from Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts, to little-known character actors will walk away from the cameras. Of more immediate concern is the Writers Guild of America, the 11,000-strong screen writers union whose representatives are in negotiations with the studios. If the two sides can’t reach agreement, the writers could walk out as early as Tuesday. The writers argue that without their words and stories, there’d be no virtually no films or TV programs. They say their scripts fuel Hollywood’s profit-making machines, and they want more money from the recycling of entertainment products they originate.
SPOKESMAN: Would you take a note to her on set?
JEFFREY KAYE: Screenwriter Charles Holland is supervising producer of the Showtime cable series “Soul Food,” and a former studio lawyer. Holland co-chairs the writers’ negotiating committee.
CHARLES HOLLAND, Writers Guild of America: What we are saying is, as you keep making money, keep compensating us. So when we write a television program or a film, you compensate us. When you reshow that on television, that film on television, you make more money; give us more money. When you sell it to foreign, you make more money; give us more money. When it goes to basic, you make more money; give us more money.
JEFFREY KAYE: Basic cable?
CHARLES HOLLAND: Yes, basic cable, thank you. When it goes to video, you make more money.
JEFFREY KAYE: For Hollywood’s writers, these payments, called residuals, are financial lifeboats in careers with little job security and longevity. A script for a TV or film production will earn the writer tens of thousands of dollars as a minimum. But most wordsmiths don’t enjoy lifestyles of the rich and famous. In a typical year, nearly half the Writers Guild membership has no income from writing. According to the guild, 50% of working writers earn less than $84,000 a year.
CHARLES HOLLAND: The 2 million dollar scripts and the 3 million dollar scripts, the reason that you see those thing reported is that it’s new. Most people don’t do that well; it’s a very, very – and even among the people that do work, it’s very, very usual that there will be interruptions in your work. You might not work for a year, two years, or three years, or four years.
JEFFREY KAYE: 42-year-old Adam Rodman says he’s an example of the working Hollywood writer – always hustling to find the next job to help support his wife, teenage child, and pay the mortgage on his home.
ADAM RODMAN, Writer: When you are between jobs and you watch your bank account go down, it is very difficult and it can be frightening. I try to live below my means. I try to put money aside when I do work, because I have been around long enough to recognize that, you know, as nice as it is when that money is coming in, it stops.
JEFFREY KAYE: The TV networks and the motion picture studios negotiate with the writers as a block. They say increased production costs stemming from $20 million- plus star salaries to ever more extravagant special effects have cut into profit margins. The studios could not provide a spokesperson for this story before a “no comment” period imposed by both sides during current negotiations. But in a KCET interview earlier this month, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg said it’s impossible to pay writers what they want.
JEFFREY KATZENBERG, Dreamworks SKG: There are aspects of our business that have gotten better, and the writers are entitled to a share in that. There are parts of our business that have gotten worse, and we need to adjust those things.
JEFFREY KAYE: Katzenberg is co- founder of Dreamworks, SKG, the studio responsible for such films as “Saving Private Ryan” and “American Beauty.” He says the writers’ demands are unrealistic.
JEFFREY KATZENBERG: People always want more. We always believe that the grass is greener on the other side in any of these things. You know, we always think that the other guy makes more money than we do.
JEFFREY KAYE: If writers feel their battles are of David and Goliath proportions, the Goliaths are far larger than in 1988, when the writers last struck. Most film and TV companies are now subsidiaries of the handful of multinational conglomerates which dominate the global media market. That makes them more formidable opponents, says agent Christopher Barrett.
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: If your business is purely the production of film and television and you are struck, you’re out of business. But if your business is film and TV production, magazine production, Internet production, Internet access, books, theme parks, merchandising products, retail stores, there are a lot more ways to deal with labor interruptions. These companies are so large that the pain of something that happens here is not necessarily going to be felt in their theme park in Japan.
JEFFREY KAYE: Economics is only one aspect of this dispute. Some writers are fighting as much for dignity as they are dollars.
INGRID BERGMAN: (in film) But what about us?
HUMPHREY BOGART: (in film) We’ll always have Paris.
JEFFREY KAYE: Although their words have long been the essential building blocks of any movie, words that often become part of the genetic code of pop culture…
ACTOR: Bond. James Bond.
ACTOR: Show me the money.
JEFFREY KAYE: …many film writers contend they are treated like the industry’s unwanted stepchildren.
ACTOR: Show me the money!
JEFFREY KAYE: They want more involvement in the creative process.
ADAM RODMAN: If I write a screenplay, I have no right to sit in on a meeting where changes are discussed. I have no right to attend rehearsals, to talk to the actors, to be on the set, to visit the editing room, to make whatever contributions I can make; I don’t have any rights there. And that’s been going on for years, and it’s galling and infuriating and frustrating.
JEFFREY KAYE: Film writers are particularly frustrated by the increasing use of the “film by” credit, which typically goes to a director or producer. The so-called vanity credit used to be reserved only for legendary filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock. Now, even neophyte directors can get the title.
CHARLES HOLLAND: Well, it’s hurtful. It’s sort of as though you gave birth to someone and then, you know, you see your son later and someone else is claiming him.
ADAM RODMAN: I think the “film by” credit is at best disingenuous. Hundreds of people work on a movie.
JEFFREY KAYE: Directors and their union, the Directors’ Guild of America, oppose the writers’ demands to set restrictions on credits. At a shoot last week for a Martin Lawrence comedy film, threats by writers to strike over cash and credits drew mixed reactions from the Hollywood’s other unionized workers.
JOANN STAFFORD CHANEY, Hairdresser: If it’s more money for them because they wrote the script, what about the people behind the scenes that brought this script to life?
ROCK LeROY, Truck Driver: I am a Teamster.
JEFFREY KAYE: So if the writers walk, will you support them?
ROCK LeROY: No, absolutely not.
JEFFREY KAYE: Why not?
ROCK LeROY: Because they didn’t support us and what we believed in and what we wanted. And not only what we wanted, but what we deserved and what we needed.
BOB LAZARE, Actor: I’m 100% behind them. I mean, if they go on strike, I’m not working. I don’t want to. I don’t want to go on strike. I’ll say that again. I’ll say that a 100,000 times: I don’t want to go on strike. But if we have to, we have to.
JEFFREY KAYE: Across Los Angeles, from recording studios to special effects houses to makeup shops, companies which supply goods and services to the film and TV industry are preparing for strikes.
NIGEL DAER, FRENDS MAKEUP SUPPLY: We work behind the scenes to make, you know, in a small way, to make those shows go. Now, we’re not rich by any means. We’re just trying to earn a living. This strike threatens that.
JEFFREY KAYE: Some analysts estimate that prolonged strikes by writers and actors could cost Los Angeles $4 billion in lost income and 82,000 jobs. Already, Hollywood executives are cutting back expenses, causing a ripple effect on businesses ranging from dry cleaners to posh restaurants.
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: I went to one of the fancy Hollywood restaurants for dinner yesterday. And yes, we do go there, it’s true. And this restaurant was empty. This is a top of the line Hollywood meeting place for lunch, and it was empty. And we looked at each other, and it is obvious. It was the strike.
JEFFREY KAYE: And how would a strike affect consumers of movies and television? Planned summer movie releases like “Tomb Raider” and “Pearl Harbor” will come out on schedule. But films planned for release this fall and beyond could be in jeopardy.
SPOKESMAN: From Studio 3B in New York.
JEFFREY KAYE: Television’s a different story. If there’s a strike, the networks are expected to increasingly rely on shows that don’t depend on either professional actors or screenwriters. That means more news magazine programs…
SPOKESPERSON: The weakest link.
JEFFREY KAYE: …Game shows, and so-called reality programming like “Survivor.” As labor negotiations continue, the entertainment industry is rushing to finish and stockpile productions in case strikes force Hollywood to put away its cameras.