Michael Colton

From punch lines to picket lines

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Colton
November 15, 2007

WRITERS ARE a doughy, sedentary bunch. Our withered muscles and embarrassing lack of athletic ability are what led many of us to be writers in the first place. But even though we might not be well suited to picket lines - or to fresh air - every day now we rise before dawn, grab our signs, and head out to march.

As a comedy writer who typically wears irony as armor, I find it refreshing to see us united in a fight that does not involve the lack of doughnut variety on the set of "Heroes."

The Writers Guild of America's strike against networks and studios is marching through its second week. "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" is in reruns; the further adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow are on hold; Ben Affleck has put aside his Saugus-set sequel to "Gone Baby Gone." But what's important about this strike is not the impact it will have on America's entertainment options, it's the impact it will have on countless working families in the industry.

If you don't believe that, it may be because of the misperception that writers are a bunch of millionaires driving to the picket lines in their Jaguars and downing Scotch and caviar while lighting hundred-dollar bills in front of the Disney gates. None of that is true, except for the Scotch.

Yes, successful writers make more money than successful coal miners. And yes, our lungs are in better shape. But almost half of the Writers Guild membership of 12,000 is unemployed at any given time, and the majority of guild writers are middle class. The median yearly income of the guild is just $5,000. We're like actors: Will Smith might make $25 million per movie, but most working actors are lucky if they can put food on the table.

Writing for film and television can be a brutal business: Constant rejection. No job security. Occasional run-ins with Gary Busey. But when there is success, there are financial benefits. Benefits that are now in jeopardy.

Writers earn residuals, which are, as a fellow writer put it, "deferred payments against the lifetime value of a script." Every time a piece of entertainment like "CSI" is sold to another market - cable television, DVD, Internet downloads - the writer earns a few cents.

There are some common complaints against residuals: "I don't pay my plumber every time I use the sink he fixed," or "I don't pay the architect every time I walk into a building" or "I don't pay my plastic surgeon every time I have sex." (OK, the last one's not so common.) But screenwriters are in a different business: A sink will not produce income for decades, the way a product like "CSI" will. Writers are entitled to profit from the success of their work, just as songwriters and novelists receive royalties.

Residuals help writers survive lean years. Everyone on the picket lines knows the story of Marc Cherry, a writer for "The Golden Girls" who relied on residuals when he couldn't get work. Except that he was working during those years: He was creating, coming up with ideas. And one of those ideas turned into a billion-dollar property for ABC: "Desperate Housewives."

So even though residuals are an inexpensive form of R&D, the studios and networks - or rather, the giant conglomerates who own those studios and networks - do not want to pay writers residuals for new media. And by "new media," I mean the Internet - you know, the thing that the big corporations tell Wall Street is shooting up their profits?

The CEOs tell the writers, however, that the Internet is "too new," that they need time to study it. That's what they said about home video in the 1980s, and so the WGA agreed to a bad deal. We will not let that happen again.

We are asking to increase new media residuals from 0.3 percent to 2.5 percent of revenues - so when they make a buck off "Two and a Half Men," we make two and a half pennies. If they don't make anything, we don't make anything. Doesn't sound like very much, does it? And yet the conglomerates would rather throw us and hundreds of other industry professionals out of work than agree. And this in a business where CBS pays Leslie Moonves $35 million and Fox pays Peter Chernin $61 million per year.

The way that the big media companies treat writers would be hilarious if it weren't so frightening. For instance, NBC streams full episodes of shows like "The Office" online - with ads - and avoids paying the writers by calling it a promotion. Yet when a 15-year-old posts an episode of a show online without compensating writers, the studios call it piracy.

Like many labor battles, this one is about the future.

I'm expecting my first child next month. She will grow up in a world where "new media" will just be "media." "Cellphone video" will just be "video." If writers don't take a stand now against corporate greed, it will be too late.

Michael Colton, a Newton native and co-writer of the film "The Comebacks," is NOT writing his pilot for Fox.

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