How Do You Negotiate Respect?

LOS ANGELES-February marks the end of the rainy season in

Los Angeles. The air is cool. The nights are chilly. A strange,

spirit-dampening meteorological phenomenon occurs out here that we on the East

Coast might call “weather”: There are entire days when the sky is filled with

rain clouds, when the glorious California sun doesn’t show itself.

This particular February, however, there is also a newfound

sense of unease in the air. A darkening, if you will, of the usual sunny SoCal

optimism. There are storm clouds on the horizon having more to do with economics

than weather: Although the rolling blackouts

and spiraling energy costs of San Francisco and Silicon Valley haven’t visited

L.A. yet (the city produces its own power and hasn’t deregulated), the

authorities forecast that the upcoming peak summer demand will push the local

power grid past its limits.

And then there is the threat of entertainment industry

strikes, with the Writers Guild’s contract expiring May 2 and the Screen Actors

Guild’s on June 30.

Wherever you go in this city, the specter of these labor

actions are Topic A. And not just at The Ivy. You hear the same questions at

Hertz, Kinko’s and the dry cleaners: What’s going to happen? Do you think

there’ll be a strike? Even the most optimistic agent I know-a woman who could

make a death sentence sound like a positive review-is feeling the malaise. “The

business has crawled to a halt,” she said. “Everyone is waiting for the other

shoe to drop.”

As a working screenwriter, I may not be the most objective

authority on all of this. But at the moment, the studios have rushed dozens of

movies into production, hoping to be finished before the Screen Actors Guild

deadline, when they would be forced to shut down in the event of a strike.

(I’ll let you guess the odds on any of these pictures receiving Oscar

nominations next year.)

And for the past month, the writers have been negotiating

with studios and networks-a.k.a. the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television

Producers. As a member of the Guild, I receive daily e-mail updates, but the

information is deliberately vague, detailing the subjects that were discussed

rather than whether any progress was made. We may be living in the Internet

era, but it hasn’t changed the theory that collective bargaining is best

conducted out of the spotlight. In either case, it’s a long, painful process.

Basically, the screenwriters want money and creative

respect. We want better payments on cable; we want better royalties on DVD’s,

video and overseas rebroadcasts; we want to rescind the lower pay scale

negotiated with the Fox network 12 years ago, when the then-new network claimed

it needed to cut costs to survive. And we want some kind of pay structure in

place for whatever the Internet brings. We made a mistake in the 80′s,

underestimating the potential revenues, profits and growth of cable and video.

This time, we’re determined not to let the profits from new media get away from

us.

From the management

point of view, there is, of course, no money. They claim that overseas

markets for American TV shows are drying up; that all of television-cable and

network-is reaching smaller audiences; and that most American films lose money.

Exactly how much of this is true is up for debate-and the point of the

negotiations. But in fact, advertising revenues are up at the networks, with advertisers

willing to pay more for specific, smaller but highly targeted audiences. New

cable channels are being founded daily, which one can only assume are not

charitable exercises. And, so far as feature-film profitability goes, there are

so many revenue streams at horizontally integrated media corporations-music,

cable, broadcast, merchandising, theme parks-that I defy anyone to figure out

whether or not a movie loses money.

(Of course, the gorilla in the corner of the feature-film

business that no one is going to discuss is the way $20 million star salaries

have thrown the economics of the entire industry out of whack. It’s affected

everything from $50,000 character actors demanding and getting $2 million to

the 22-year-old production assistant who sees the excess, says “screw it” and

begins sending Variety to her

boyfriend in Brussels every day via FedEx.)

For the writers, obviously the money is important, but the

more heartfelt issue-and the thing everyone is talking about-is creative

rights. It’s a demand for respect. We’re tired of being thought of as

disposable; we’re tired of being cut out of the movie-making process when the

filming begins, only to be rewritten on the set by actors, producers and

directors, resulting in films that all too often embarrass us. (And before you

ask, “So why put your name on the film?”, the answer lies in the fact that

residuals, royalties and production bonuses are tied to having your name on

it.) We’re not looking to direct. We’re not looking for control. We’re only looking

to play a greater role in the oft-cited “collaborative process,” which we

honestly believe will make for better, more coherent films.

The flash point for all of this has become the so-called

possessory credit-”A Martin Scorsese film,” for example-that appears before the

title in so many American films. When this first came into vogue, in the 60′s

and 70′s, studios promised that it would only be used in the most rarefied

cases where the director’s name helped sell the film. Hitchcock, for example. But

last year, it appeared on almost 70 percent of the movies released by

Hollywood.

Among the working screenwriters I’ve talked to, there’s a

grim sense of determination about this: a belief that it’s demeaning, it’s

wrong, it’s inaccurate. And the fight has put

us at odds with members of the Directors Guild, who insist it’s their divine

right and aren’t about to give it up.

This is something that I find myself surprisingly adamant

about. I can see the credit for Scorsese. Or Barry Levinson. Or Steven Spielberg,

Spike Lee, Woody Allen, the Coen brothers-even the Farrelly brothers. But not

for someone who’s little more than a director for hire.

Recently, a young unknown director-a friend who’s picture

I’d worked on gratis-decided to take the credit. I couldn’t resist needling him

about it:

“So I see you’re an auteur now.”

“Hey, I did more than just direct. I supervised everything.”

“Isn’t that the definition of the director’s job?”

“Yes, but it’s my film.”

“Oh. Pardon me. Did you write it?”

“No.”

“Did you create the story?”

“No.”

“Did you conceive of the characters?”

“No.”

“Did you edit it? Negotiate the talent contracts? Operate

the camera? Did you light it, score it, find the actors by yourself? Were you

sitting on the writer’s shoulder when she had the original idea?”

“No.”

“So, fool that I am, can you explain how it’s your film?”

“It’s my vision ,”

he said, laughing as he exaggerated the word, then adding, “You know what this

is about. It’s about power. And money. And more control on my next project… You

know, the one you’re not going to be writing.”

Having worked on enough movies-credited and not-I could

probably fill a book with tales of screenwriter woe. From the ridiculous (being

fired three times from the same picture; working with a star who never read the

script until the night before shooting, but held forth on the publicity junket

about how he worked to create his character) to the merely insulting. (On the

Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies , in

which I created a media-mogul villain, I was left out of the publicity when the

studio decided no one would be interested in anything I might have to say,

despite the fact that the screenwriter was the only one in the production who’d

ever been in proximity to a real, live media mogul.)

So will there be a strike? Is it possible to negotiate

respect?

At a recent dinner party in Los Angeles, a famous

screenwriter told me she thinks this is all Y2K:

The Movie -meaning it’s much ado about nothing. And a television writer

opined that a recession will scare the Writers and Screen Actors guilds

off-especially given the less-than-stellar gains in last year’s AFTRA strike.

At the same time, there’s a feeling that the studios

actually want the strike. Due to the force

majeure (read: act of God) clause in contracts, the studios can use the

strike to nullify lots of bad deals. It’s a terrific way of cutting overhead.

(Case in point: Last year, I was hired to write a film for a movie star with a

studio production deal. He couldn’t find the two hours to read it. Twelve

months, two bombs and who-knows-how-many millions in overhead later, the

studio’s itching for a way to get this person and the entourage off the lot.)

Among most of the writers I’ve spoken with, there’s a

feeling that the creative issues have become something of a now-or-never

proposition. It’s not, as the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky wrote, that “we’re

mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

But rather, a quiet, determined, resolute feeling that

enough is enough.