By William Boyd
It is Monday the 5th November 2007 and I have gone on strike. I’ve been a member of the Writers’ Guild of America (West) for twenty years now and this is the second time I’ve downed tools on their instructions. The last time was in 1988, a writers’ strike that lasted from March to August and apparently cost the ‘industry’ some 500 million dollars. Strangely enough that strike barely impinged on me even though my Hollywood connections in those days were far stronger than they are currently. In 1988 I had just had a film in production at Columbia (Stars and Bars) and had delivered two scripts to US independent producers (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and Mr Johnson — both films were later made). Looking back at my journal, however, I see that in 1988 the strike was never mentioned, yet I went to Los Angeles twice that year, once as part of a book tour and once for meetings at Universal — the strike was over by then and I wrote a script for John Landis.
With this new strike, however, nothing so distant and tangential: problems have immediately ensued. Last week I was on the point of beginning a script for another US independent producer but as we looked at the way the Writers’ Guild was squaring up to the AMPTP — the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — the producer and I ruefully agreed there was no point in proceeding until the strike was over. So — no contract, no fee, but the promise of something happening in the future, as and when. Even though I haven’t been to Los Angeles for ten years it’s odd to find myself palpably embroiled in an American labour dispute — and financially disadvantaged thereby.
But it’s a good and noble cause and I am happy to stand — albeit metaphorically — on the picket lines in Hollywood with my fellow screenwriters. The writers’ complaint is a cogent and simple one, and next year we look like being joined by the actors and the directors as their unions’ contracts with the AMPTP also have to be renegotiated. Some sort of industry meltdown is forecast unless a little bit of parity comes our collective way. Basically, we all want a bigger slice of the DVD- and Internet-revenue cake. Writers receive approximately 4 cents of every DVD dollar and we’d like to up it to 8 cents. It still doesn’t seem very much to me — the producers get a pride of lions’ share — and, of course, with these issues we enter the dark and arcane world of residual payments, the sordid realm of creative accounting.
But in my experience, if the Guild has negotiated a deal and it’s enshrined in a contract it is usually, eventually, honoured.
But, aside from the details of the particular demands, in this instance there are other factors about a writers’ strike that I think are worth investigating. When screenwriters go on strike there’s a sudden focus on the job itself — who are these people, what do they do, are they important? It’s in the nature of the profession that any industrial action we initiate is not likely to be instantly cataclysmic: we can’t throw a switch and cut off power and water or blockade oil refineries. The first signs will be quickly manifest in the live, daily chat shows — Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brian, Jon Stewart — perhaps even on newscasts where anchormen and women rely on writers for their ‘impromptu’ banter and remarks. Then the daily soap operas will feel the strain as the scripts run out, the weekly series will be next and, months on, finally future television seasons and future films will begin to sense the absence of the people who start the whole process off.
Film is a massively collaborative medium — don’t let directors tell you otherwise — but you can’t even begin to think about collaborating if there isn’t a script. You can’t cast, you can’t budget, you can’t crew-up, you can’t schedule if it’s not written down. One of the less obvious consequences of industrial action is that it throws a sharp light on the crucial balances of power and spheres of influence that operate in the entertainment industry. A strike like this will also, I believe, have a longer-term advantage in that the writers may, with a bit of luck, be seen for the key players they are. The ‘Schmucks with Underwoods’ — as Jack Warner dubbed his screenwriters — suddenly have some muscle. The first link in the chain that goes into the making of a show or a soap, a series or a movie — the script — is suddenly revealed as the vital one, the sine qua non.
The conspiracy theorist in me has always sensed that the denigration of writers in Hollywood was an early and shrewd decision made by the producers and the studios. By rating screenwriters as lowly, toiling drones — and treating them and remunerating them as such — the elemental importance of their role in the industry was very usefully obscured and camouflaged. Also, the way Hollywood pits writer against writer through the deeply damaging process of having scripts deliberately rewritten — hiring writer after writer to revise, tinker with and polish scripts and then have them squabble bitterly with each other over the credit — is another calculating example of the principle of divide and rule. But times are changing. A studio executive friend of mine at one of the major Hollywood studios tells me that, in his opinion, all the best writers are now writing for television (always more of a writers’ medium) and, as it will be television that bears the brunt of this strike initially, perhaps the television producers will be the ones to see sense first. Two strikes in two decades is hardly a record of knee-jerk militancy but the 1988 strike provoked shock and engineered real change — a boom in cable TV, for one thing. Who knows what 2007 will bring? In the meantime, while we wait for the outcome and fallout, I’ll be concentrating on my next novel — no strikes in a one-man band.
This article appeared in the Guardian in November 2007