Thursday, November 15, 2007

WGA Strike Hurts Us All.

Let me just start by saying... the Writers Guild of America has a legitimate complaint.

Yes... they really do...

Writers barely get paid compared to directors, producers and even actors and quite often, don't even get a share of residual royalties.

That said... Here's a great article explaining the current WGA contract rights:

According to the current union contract, as a WGA writer on a prime-time television series, you would make over $30,823 per episode and an additional 8,634 for each rewrite. Conservatively, (very conservatively!) lets say writers only have to do 1 rewrite per episode, that means they are getting paid $39,457 per episode. A full season of TV is now around 22 episodes... Most shows have teams of writers and not everyone is credited on all the episodes, so generously, lets say this hypothetical writer only gets credit on 17 of the 22.

That's $670,769 for the year! (And that's just for the per episode payments, NOT including their monthly or week-to-week salaries and a whole host of other built in fees, or royalties!)

By contrast... the Median income of the United States is about $50,000.

Soooooooooooo... I don't know about anyone else, but I don't feel that bad for them. Especially considering I'm a highly trained, experienced and (not to be immodest) quite talented composer with a masters from a highly respectable university and my income is definitely not yet anything close to that range... Hell, it's not even at the "average" American range yet either!

But this isn't about me and I have absolutely no grudge against people who provide a product millions of people want getting filthy rich...

This is about the 90-95% of people who work in entertainment and are making $20-40,000 a year on either part-time hourly wages or working 14+ hours a week on salary. Because every time one of the bloated Hollywood unions strikes it's not the $200,000 or $1,000,000+ a year writers, directors or actors who gets hurt, it's EVERYONE ELSE!

One of my best friends is a costume designer and wardrobe supervisor. She recently complained about Katherine Heigl bringing food to the picketing writers. "Where are my donuts Ms. Heigl?" She quipped.

Where indeed? As we approach Christmas time and the other winter holidays, you can rest assured that Tina Fey and her family will have enough to eat, fun times, possibly a nice vacation in a beach-house and assuredly presents for all. The same cannot necessarily be said for all those who really make her show and all the others run. In a previous Variety article, one of the crew members on NBC's "The Office" made note that while there are 12 writers on the show, there are well over 100 other members of the production staff - and she didn't include post production people like editors, music supervisors or (yes) composers! ALL of whom are out of work.

This whole thing doesn't just affect the writers and the management, it affects everyone. And because of the economic structure of the entertainment industry, even if the writers win this battle - everyone else loses. Including the average viewer!

Let me explain:

Say writers get a salary bump to $40,000 per episode, $10,000 per rewrite, some sort of royalty agreement that generates residual income for them including the big money issue du jour, internet revenue. (Which by the way, is way better than they will be able to do in reality!)

Where does that money come from?

Well - maybe we should first ask; where won't the money becoming from?

Since directors and actors have extremely powerful unions and have the most clout due to the nature of "name brand" recognition, we can rest assured that none of them will be taking a cut (they make vastly more than writers per episode already). We might also assume that if writers get residuals from internet broadcasts as they want, directors are probably not too far behind and eventually actors will gorge at that delicious trough as well. It might as well go unsaid that the executives at the major networks aren't going to be seeing a reduction in pay either. In addition, it's probably safe to assume that no money will be taken out of advertising budgets, since when the writers return, the entire industry will desperately need viewers filling every theatre seat and watching every prime time sitcom available.

We also know two fun financial facts:

any time there's a major strike the entertainment industry takes an enormous hit - last time the WGA writers went on strike in 1988, the industry as a whole took a 500 million dollar loss.
2. The internet has radically changed the way media is distributed and a wider variety of options have already meant significant financial problems for Hollywood.

So again, you have to ask, how will studios pay for all this?

Well, my guess is that the money is going to come from two places:

First, it's going to come out of budgets set aside for the development of new programming. This is assuredly a bad call from a long-term stand point, but then, when does the entertainment industry think long term? What that really means is that if you think TV is a waste of time now, just wait a year or two! Furthermore, what new shows will be developed are probably going to be as cheap to produce as is humanly possible......... thus - you guessed it - MORE REALITY SHOWS!! YAY!

Secondly, a reduced budget in this regard also means that existing shows are going to have to make some cuts across the board. What this most likely will mean is this: the $20-40,000 a year crew I referred to earlier won't be getting raises or bonuses, and the fact that their salaries have not remotely kept up with inflation as it is will only get worse. It also means that shows will start opting for other cheaper means of production - this might include reductions in wardrobe budgets (more costume pulling from existing greenrooms and less buying and probably zero actual costume design or fabrication), reductions in budgets for special effects and props, reductions in staff, more obsiquious unpaid interns, and the one that most concerns me directly; reductions in the music budget.

Music in television programming is already shit.Absolute garbage.

To dispel any illusions held by those who think they know how this works, the majority of music you hear on TV anymore was not composed specifically for that project but rather came out of a "license library". The market has been flooded recently with companies offering to get "placement" in film and TV for unsigned bands and "producers" of crap. And they work because they offer music to people who know nothing about music or the interaction of music with film for much cheaper than anyone like me can legitimately provide and still afford to eat. Expertise doesn't come cheap afterall... The bands and "producers" (the reason I am putting producers in quotations is a blog in and of itself...) get a couple hundred bucks at best for their songs and the slim chance that one day their band will be known outside the world of myspace. The library companies make a few thousand on a temporary, non-exclusive license or maybe $10,000 on exclusive rights for a year or two (after which time the music just goes back into the pool). No composer has to be paid, no director has to have the unpleasant experience of working completely out of his element and putting his trust in another artists expertise, and a moderately shitty soundtrack can be inserted at (comparative to the rest of the process) almost no cost! Sounds good... only, it actually sounds like crap.

A reduction in music budgets mean fewer composing gigs and perpetually worse music in entertainment. So that's my specific complaint...

Now, apply that complaint to any skilled artisan and multiply by 50 and you start to see the magnitude of the problem in priorities.

Yes, writers are extremely important to the process, and are the architects behind all of the rest of us having jobs in some ways. For that they deserve just compensation (which they are really not getting at the moment). But for entertainment to work, a well-oiled and highly complex machine with lots of gears must move smoothly. Most of those gears aren't writers, or directors, producers or actors. Most of them are on-set costumers who make sure the actors fit their parts and look great, gaffers who use light to make the clothes look great on camera, cinematographers who get interesting shots and keep our eyes on the screen never missing an important moment, sound recordists who make sure the actors can be heard.......... and literally a hundred other people on even the smallest shows. Most of these people are no less talented at what they do than WGA writers are. In fact, many, like myself, have even studied longer, trained more and developed more expertise and skill. It is not an easy undertaking to learn the skillset it takes to be a competent film maker - writing may be important, but in many ways, it's the "easy part".

The WGA strike is bad news for everyone. Unfortunately, if they're successful, everyone else except a tiny few are still radically underpaid and because the revenue is simply not going to increase by $100,000 or more per union writer, everyone else is going to suffer. The crew, the PAs, the staff, the post-production staff, the music, the overall quality of production...

...and most of all, the viewer.

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