17 November, 2007

We are not wage slaves

The screenwriters' strike in America is a fight for the creative and financial independence of writers

David Edgar, The Guardian


By definition, screenwriters don't have famous faces, hence the attention that's been paid to the stars that have joined American screenwriters on the picket lines of greater Los Angeles since the writers' strike began. But Holly Hunter, Eva Longoria, Jay Leno et al aren't just backing the people who give them words to say. The writers happen to be leading off the current round of contract renegotiations, so the usually invisible pen-wielders of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are thus first over the top in a battle that will affect other creatives - notably actors and directors - as well.

The fact that creatives are creators rather than manufacturers of the things they make lies at the heart of a strike that has already silenced late-night chatshow monologues, has turned Saturday Night Live into Saturday Night Repeat and - currently - looks as if it might outrun the last, five-month WGA strike of 1988. One of the two major questions at issue - payments for writers of a proportion of profits from DVD sales of their work - is a matter of degree: the current 0.3% deal is based on the costs of expensive video cassettes rather than cheap DVDs. But the second issue - payments for internet, podcasting and mobile-phone distribution - is about whether writers (and, by extrapolation, everyone else) should be paid on these platforms at all.

Traditionally, writers of books, radio and stage plays own the copyright on their works, leasing it to publishers in exchange for a percentage of the publishers' earnings (a royalty), and retaining full control of how the work is used. Because of the immense costs, television and film producers didn't want writers to be able to veto changes; for their part, writers wanted their relationship with their work to be more than that of widget maker to widget. They also wanted to be rewarded for the success of a product to which they had made a primary contribution. Residual payments ensure that writers are not just paid a fee (what producers think a writer's work is worth) but a percentage of its earnings (what the public thinks it's worth). Residuals, in that sense, are an acknowledgement of authorship. Refusing to grant them is taking authorship away.

As screenwriters were quick to argue when I visited LA during the final countdown, the dispute comes at a propitious time. One of the reasons for the upsurge of creativity in American television drama has been the increased importance of the writer/producer in the making of major, groundbreaking series such as Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, Marc Cherry's Desperate Housewives and now Tim Kring's Heroes. Likewise, the turnaround in British series drama has been largely because of writer/producers such as Paul Abbott (Clocking Off, Shameless) and Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, the new Doctor Who). This is a very good time to be reminding American and British film and television producers of what they can't do without.

Hence the strike has international repercussions. Although the Writers' Guild of Great Britain has negotiated satisfactory agreements with broadcasters on DVD, internet and mobile phone distribution, arguments about whether internet streaming is a branch of marketing or a new form of distribution touch on negotiations in other areas too (it was recently an issue in our successful negotiation of a new agreement for stage playwrights). Hence, we are not only supporting the WGA in an international day of solidarity (on November 28), but strongly advising our members, as they did in 1988, not to take work that would have been taken by striking American writers.

The British guild is not a closed shop (which means that non-members share in benefits that they don't contribute to winning). The WGA is, and so British writers who want to write in America would be crazy to strike-break. But more importantly, the American writers are fighting for a point of principle that touches on the relationship between all writers and their publishers.

Victory would confirm that writers - and actors and directors - are not the wage slaves of an increasingly small and concentrated coterie of mega-corporations (including the owners of the newspapers that are reporting the strike), but the creators of the works they produce. Those Jack Warner called "schmucks with Underwoods" (today it would be schmucks with Apple Macs) are fighting to preserve their creative as well as their financial independence.

· David Edgar is a playwright and president of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, which holds its annual awards in London tomorrow
DavidEdgar@blueyonder.co.uk

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