Solidarity, baby

It’s been about two weeks since television and feature film writers went on strike, and I’ve been wanting to write something about it since day one. Though I’m not a member of the Writers’ Guild, I do make my living by working with words, and I’m one hundred percent behind the strike: this is what unions are for. And the recent announcement that writers and studios would be resuming formal contract talks on the 26th gives me hope that a resolution is near at hand.

You know, there’s no better illustration of the problems with the Hollywood studio system than this: one of the major reasons that the studios have agreed to resume talks with striking writers is that they’ve now had to suspend production on a film. And not just any film, but Angels and Demons, the forthcoming sequel to The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s bestselling novel.

My feelings about Brown and his writing are a matter of record—this is the man who wrote a sentence so ridiculous and nonsensical that it ought to be enshrined in the Hall of Bad Sentence Fame. And I’m relieved to know I wasn’t alone in those feelings, with no less than British writer, actor, and comedian Stephen Fry backing me up:

Dan Whatsit and his preposterously awful Leonardo book are actually relevant to our theme. I usually last longer with any best-selling novel, however pathetic, than I did with his. But in his case I knew from the very first word that this was a writer of absolutely zero interest, insight, wit, understanding or ability. A blunderer of monumental incompetence. The first word, can you credit it, is ‘renowned’. ‘Renowned symbologist Henry Titfeather ….’ or something equally drivelling, that’s how this dreadful book opens. How do you begin to explain to someone that you just don’t start a fictional story by telling your readers that your character is ‘renowned’?

But The Da Vinci Code and, presumably, Angels and Demons are fiduciary bovines for the studio industry. Heck, even I saw The Da Vinci Code, despite loathing the novel (the movie was marginally better, but that’s largely because the book is kind of written to be a movie).

Back to my starting point: I’d wanted to write something about the strike. The problem is that it’s such a huge issue, not to mention one that’s been so well-covered, that I didn’t feel like I necessarily had anything to contribute to the discussion. My views are pretty straightforward: on the issue of paying out residuals on new media, I think the writers are right and the studios are wrong—it’s that simple.

The studios have concocted all sorts of nonsensical arguments about why they can’t pay the writers what they want; normally discussions this preposterous would only be found in the worlds of Dr. Sesuss or Lewis Carroll. They claim that they don’t make enough money on online media (despite the fact that they sell advertising for it, which implies that they’ve determined a rate of worth), or that they haven’t yet to be able to determine the value of online media (despite, as this clip from the writers of The Daily Show points out, that earlier this year Viacom sued Google for one billion dollars because their content was being uploaded to YouTube). Come on: you expect us to believe that an industry that’s all about the bottom line, whose bread-and-butter are budgets and box office returns, hadn’t come up with a price tag for online content?

The studios are scared, and rightly so: when it comes to technology, they’ve seen what happened to the music industry. Earlier this week, Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. admitted that the industry had made a mistake by prosecuting a war on their customers:

“We used to fool ourselves,’ he said. “We used to think our content was perfect just exactly as it was. We expected our business would remain blissfully unaffected even as the world of interactivity, constant connection and file sharing was exploding. And of course we were wrong. How were we wrong? By standing still or moving at a glacial pace, we inadvertently went to war with consumers by denying them what they wanted and could otherwise find and as a result of course, consumers won.”

To be clear, the music industry is still making money, and it’s not like they’re about to go out of business, but cracks are starting to show in their facade. Creators are starting to realize that they don’t necessarily need to get a deal with the record companies to make music and, more importantly, to make money making music. And the record labels want nothing more than to maintain their hegemony in the music market.

The film studios will outlast the music industry if only because, despite the impressive advances in filmmaking technology, there’s still a particular type of movie (the blockbuster) that is hard to make without the immense amount of money that Hollywood can bring to bear. Given enough talent, one person with a computer can record a track that is virtually indistinguishable from much of what gets churned out by the recording industry. While one person with a computer and a camera can make a very impressive film, they’ll be hard-pressed to compete with mainstream Hollywood fare, most of which features instantly recognizable actors and special effects by houses comprised of thousands of people, to name just two factors.

But if you’re paying attention, you’ll have noted the key phrase in the above scenario is this: “Given enough talent.” The one thing that you can’t fake, no matter how much money you get, is talent. Just because a guy in his garage has the technology to produce a song or a movie doesn’t mean that he should. The same applies for the likes of studios: just because they’ve got the money to throw into movies doesn’t mean they should be the ones in charge of it creatively. The idea that executive authority should be tied to the purse strings is a product of capitalism, but it has little purpose in the creative realm, any more than you’d your want health insurance organizations telling you which procedures you can or can’t have when you’re sick. These are not necessarily the people best qualified to make those types of decisions.

And I’ve gotten away from the strike again. While the studios are asking themselves “can we afford to cave to the writers’ demands?” the real question they ought to be asking themselves is whether they can afford not to cave to the writers’ demands. Late-night television shows have already been forced into reruns due to the strike, and prime-time shows are rapidly running out of time. At the very least, television has the ability to fall back on unscripted shows—read: reality TV—but the last and most powerful of the markets, feature films, has no such option. That’s why a blow to a film the size of Angels and Demons is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Entire movie seasons are planned around productions of like this—that’s why they call them “tentpoles”; they keep the studio solvent and upright, even if everything else falls down around them. While studios might have tried to outlast the writers if the strike had been limited to television, figuring—probably correctly—that the writers would run out of resolve or money first, the impact on feature films is far more striking, because studios are forced to look a couple years ahead in order to plan their calendars.

I find it likely that an agreement will be reached sat some point next week when the talks reconvene, and I certainly hope that a decision that favors the writers will be reached. Despite the trend towards reality TV, the fact is that the entertainment industry relies on writers as a house does on a solid foundation. Without writers, we’d be watching 90-minute sprees of product placement with banal, unremarkable writing—we’d be watching infomercials.

That is, if we were watching at all.