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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Quick Response to Jeremy Lott (Updated)

I was going to leave this as a comment on Jeremy Lott’s site, but, sadly, comments aren’t allowed. Lott, author of the wonderful In Defense of Hypocrisy (a book with a cover I wish I had designed (sorry, graphics geek moment)), linked to my glib prayer of thanks for the writers strike.

Am I the only right-of-center type who isn’t wild about the Hollywood writers’ strike? I don’t even watch much television –three, four hours a week tops — and I have enough unwatched videos and DVDs stockpiled to wait out any longer work stoppage.

It’s not quite fair to say that I’m wild about the strike; I’m a little closer to indifferent. I lived without cable for a few years and got myself hooked up only because I wanted to be able to watch the Avalanche playoffs games. Most of my TV watching is sports related, I catch stuff on the History Channel regularly, and I try to catch House every week. Of course, my fascination with American Idol is widely mocked, so I don’t dare leave that out, too.

My feelings about the strike, though, have little to do with my watching habits.

I have little sympathy for the producers because, frankly, everything that I’ve ever heard about their accounting practices leads me to believe that they do their best to screw writers hard. The writers have only themselves to blame for some of the problems, though: they made a bad deal last time around and completely underestimated the kind of revenue that would be created from DVD sales. Oops.

Here’s the thing, though, I’m not sure how much sympathy I have for the writers, either. If this is right:

Starting TV writers earn about $70,000 per season for full-time work on a show. Veteran writers who move up to a story-editor position make at least a low six-figure salary, with a “written by” credit on an hourlong script paying an additional $30,000 plus residuals.

We’re not exactly talking about a poorly paid profession, are we? And for writers who aren’t staff writers or who write on spec, well that’s the risk, isn’t it? When I write a handful of articles for paid publication in any given year, I don’t complain that I’m not paid a living wage. I just make sure that I leave the focus on the job that actually pays my bills and realize that what I do on the side is, essentially, a hobby.

I wouldn’t presume to know what a writer deserves to be paid for, say, working on episodes of Cave Man, and I know that writing well--good dialogue, good plotting, believable characters with depth (things not in evidence in Cave Man)--is not a common skill. I hope that the strike is settled quickly and equitably.

But not only will I not much miss the grand majority of the tripe that the TV spews, I have absolutely no idea what equitable looks like and it just isn’t that important to me. I’ll leave the serious writing on the subject to those people who have a vested interest in the subject.

Read the rest of Lott’s comments.

Update: And now you can read Lott’s response to my response. Which makes this one of the longer blog-to-blog conversations that I’ve had in a while. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any further response. Turkey and carb overload seems to have robbed me of my capacity for thought.

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The writer’s guild is in an impossible position. It’s true that writing well isn’t a common skill - which would seem to put the power in the hands of those with that skill.

Unfortunately, while writing well isn’t a common skill, it’s also not a particularly rare one. Probably one person in ten is literate and organized to the point of being able to write a story or a short script; probably one person in a hundred could regularly produce something that was actually watchable; probably one person in a thousand could produce consistently decent material.

So the potential pool of English-language Hollywood writers comes out to around one million people.

This would not be a problem for the writers if, as in days of yore, writers got paid pennies. Those million people wouldn’t quit their jobs as Arby’s day manager and accountants and schoolteachers to move to Hollywood and earn $20,000 a year. But as you note, those jobs pay big bucks - and the top people make way more than the union scale, millions in some cases. I don’t begrudge them that, far from it - go free market go! But it means that there are a lot of people who could be doing the job, if the people currently doing it don’t want it anymore.

Which means that the producers, who are indeed scum, and also very stupid, end up holding the cards. They don’t want to tell the screenwriters to go f*** themselves, because in Hollywood circles it isn’t well thought of to be “anti-union”. But in terms of practical power, they can tell the screenwriters to go f*** themselves, and have a team of writers willing to work harder and better for half the money, and this will take about thirty minutes to set up. And everyone knows this.

So what’s really going on is that the writers are negotiating, not from a position of denying their labor (a denial which has no value), but from a position of letting the producers look like good, union-loving, labor-happy people and keeping their political relationships with actors and directors and such positive. The writers will end up getting something, but nowhere near what they want. If they push too hard, the producers will start talking about the Internet economy and disintermediation and how cool it is that people working in Iowa can do screenplays for them - and William Goldman will have to go out and get a job.

on Nov 20 2007 @ 10:55 AM

"Of course, my fascination with American Idol is widely mocked...”

Do you need fresh mocking?

on Nov 20 2007 @ 11:02 AM

No. But it would be fair.

Robert, a comment in reference to one thing: I remember watching An Evening with Kevin Smith and listening to a few stories that he told about making movies. The thing that came across most to me was that so many of the people that he was working for sounded like complete idiots. The biggest impression I came away with was that some of the people making the biggest movies in Hollywood are just faking it--if you haven’t seen it, watch the thing and pay attention to his story about writing a script for Superman. It’s hilarious.

on Nov 20 2007 @ 11:43 AM

Actually, here’s a link to the YouTube clip.

on Nov 20 2007 @ 12:08 PM

I’ve seen the interview where he describes working on a Superman screenplay.  It is indeed quite hilarious.

on Nov 20 2007 @ 02:35 PM

As a younger man, I spent a few months working in Hollywood on software projects for Dreamworks SKG. It appeared to me then, and I have no reason to think that anything has changed, that there was some kind of field being projected over the city of Los Angeles that slowly saps the inhabitants of their intelligence. People arrive, see how dumb everyone around them is, and think “I can take this place over in about a week!” And indeed, they do great things at first, because their comparatively high IQ makes them seem brilliant to the gape-mouth locals. Of course, over time, the new conquerors begin to fade in intelligence themselves, and eventually wind up on the street, or in an executive suite somewhere dribbling into a glass.

I was going to investigate the nature and origin of the stupidity-causing field, but eventually I became too stupid to understand my own theory. Fortunately, I fell asleep on an outbound train and by the time we hit Denver my head had cleared enough for me to recognize the peril of returning.

on Nov 20 2007 @ 03:32 PM
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