Sunday, January 27, 2008

Strike That, Reverse It (Part 2)

(Strike That, Reverse It: Part 1/1.19.08)

"I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we've got something here."

-- Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, The Player

In the almost three months since the Writers Guild of America went on strike, leaving Hollywood in limbo, I've tried to remember a dispute in which both sides of the argument had, at one point or another, been so thoroughly full of shit. I haven't come up with a thing so far.

Since my early days in Los Angeles, beyond the strike threat that once held my entire workplace hostage, I've grown up considerably, my views on unions evolving right along with me. At 25, I was too self-absorbed in general and certainly too overwhelmed by the difficulties of my daily struggle at work to appreciate the necessity of an entity put in place to guard against abuses by the kinds of managers that existed at KCBS. I would eventually come to realize that something, anything, had to function as a thorn in the side of a management team whose otherwise unchecked impudence was slowly killing us all. Although I had no desire to join the WGA myself -- despite its constant protests -- I began to regard it as an unfortunate but necessary evil.

And when placed against the absolute evil of KCBS's mindless and heartless "leadership," it was almost always the lesser of the two.

To this day though, I can't help but look upon any union with a slightly suspicious eye, fully believing that organized labor has itself been allowed to grow dangerously unchecked; anyone who doubts that it's by and large become the very thing it ostensibly stands in defiance of -- corrupt and unfettered bureaucracy that doesn't really give a crap about anything but the perpetuation of its own authority -- needs to start paying more attention.

For the most part, the demands made by the WGA against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have been reasonable, particularly when it comes to residuals from new-media; the Guild got screwed back in the 90s when DVDs became the dominant format for home video and the writers wound up stuck with an antiquated and rather unfair deal that had been meant to apply only to VHS. The Guild doesn't want to make the mistake of being short-sighted this time around; it knows full-well that internet on-demand viewing is the future and if it doesn't stand up for a cut now, the producers -- who haven't exactly proven themselves to be extraordinarily benevolent in the past and who are now spewing bullshit by the metric ton about the supposedly hypothetical nature of the internet goldmine -- will shut them out completely in favor of raking in the dough for the Hollywood studios and the corporations which run them. Admittedly, writers for television and film don't make a fortune, relative to the producers and the upper-levels of the Hollywood hierarchy -- which is not to say that they're paid badly in general; they aren't, and don't let them fool you into believing they are. When the money to be made from their hard work is taken into account, the people in the Guild indeed deserve more, but there are still a hell of a lot of guys working at Jiffy-Lube who'd kill to take home what your average sitcom writer pulls in every few weeks.

That said, only an idiot would trust a corporation -- or any other entity that generates money hand-over-fist -- to be completely equitable to the creative types in the basement of the production line; corporations are about making money, and the best way to do that is to avoid spending it wherever and whenever possible. As far as the producers and studios are concerned, artists are little more than a burden; if they could figure out a way to get a TV show on the air or a movie in the theaters without using writers, directors and actors, they'd do it in a fucking heartbeat.

Which, unfortunately, still doesn't make a strike of this magnitude a great idea -- for anyone concerned.

By now, any union should know -- and it's only the arrogance of organized labor in general that prevents this -- that it will eventually reap the scorn of the innocents it affects. Put simply, the ones who walk off the job will be the ones who lose the sympathy of the public the longer a strike drags on. Your average American, particularly the Barco-lounging neo-lummox the television industry considers its bread-and-butter, operates under two pertinent assumptions: that he busts his ass every day at a job he doesn't much like and therefore only has so much empathy with those who aren't willing to do the same, and that at the end of his rotten day, all he wants is to crack open a beer, sit the hell down and be entertained by the magic box in the living room. While 99% of this country can feel a modicum of solidarity with anyone who's being screwed by corporate greed, the well of good-natured compassion dries up awfully fast when that person begins stepping all over America's collective toes by spoiling Leno and cancelling awards season.

While it would be fair to blame the producers as much, if not more than, the striking writers in this case, the former finds itself in an infinitely better position -- at least from a PR standpoint. All the AMPTP has to do is -- well, nothing. The producers need only sit back quietly and watch the WGA picket and protest and chant and enlist the help of pompous clowns like Rage Against the Machine and stage unforgivable "Bring Your Child to the Picket Line" rallies and eventually hang itself in the eyes of the public. The producers and studios know that the Guild will do their work for them, not only by shutting down popular shows but by choosing to picket their ostensibly innocent peers and friends who -- as in my own case years ago -- have no choice but to keep working to survive. (A perfect example: It's one thing to walk off the set of The Daily Show and The Tonight Show; it's another thing completely to picket those non-union employees who continue to work and, more importantly, the people like Jon Stewart and Jay Leno who've not only been good to you but who care enough about all their workers to keep them employed by staying on the air. Remember, in theory anyway, those on strike will eventually have to return to work and try to live in the very place they've spent months carpet-bombing.)

At some point, a strike becomes a form of terrorism: The innocent are held hostage and made to suffer for the sake of making a political point.

This is in no way meant to imply that a workforce should simply allow management to walk all over it; anyone can find him or herself in a position where a stand has to be taken, particularly in this era of unrestrained who-gives-a-shit-about-the-little-guy greed. Unfortunately, the necessity of a strike in no way negates the reality of what happens once that strike begins -- and then drags on for months.

Both sides have already lost on this one -- but when it's all over, the writers will likely have lost more.

(Update/1.28.08: This turned up in this morning's New York Times -- in its coverage of Sunday night's SAG Awards -- and it highlights perfectly what I'm talking about: "Christina Applegate, star of the ABC series 'Samantha Who?,' said in an interview on the red carpet that she was hoping that the actors union would not begin its own strike when its contract is up at the end of June. Noting that the strike has caused collateral damage to thousands of people in Los Angeles — seamstresses, caterers, dry cleaners and the like — she said, 'I don’t think we can hurt them anymore.'")


Terry Heaton said...

Long ago, I learned the following piece of wisdom.

Social movements begin with a cause and end with the scent of victory, never victory itself. As social movements gain steam (and resources), the leaders of the movement consciously or otherwise attempt to institutionalize it, which means it must redefine victory as something unattainable. The fight becomes the mission. This is true throughout history, and it's one of the things that is so fucked up about our culture.

Would somebody please hit the reset button?

Shane said...

Ya know, in a way, the writers' strike has been a blessing.

I'm no longer chained to my weekly schedule of watching every fucking show that comes on, and have instead decided to spend my free time socializing, reading, and pursuing other non-television-related interests. I've lost weight, I've got a clean apartment, and to be honest, I'm not so sure that I care what happens on Grey's Anatomy anymore. My friends and I have found new things to do rather than gather weekly for 30 Rock (no matter how amazing it was).

In fact, in moments where I need a tv break, I've been able to finally get around to watching good television on Veronica Mars and My So-Called Life.

So stay on strike, writers. You're doing a lot of us a favor.