The entertainment business, movies, TV, music, is divided between buyers and sellers. The sellers are actors, musicians, directors writers and their agents. The buyers are the studios, the networks, the labels. Over the last fifteen years or more, the balance of power has shifted dramatically from the sellers to the buyers. Once, powerful agencies made astronomical deals on behalf of their biggest clients. The rising tide that resulted lifted all boats. Major stars were paid large fees and their supporting castmates made enviable salaries, as well. In the 1990s, that began to change. Today, the biggest stars are still paid huge salaries, but other salaries have dropped significantly. Roles are cast at a fixed price and the producers find the actor who will work at that budgeted amount.
More changes followed. The quote system died. Actors who never read a script without an offer were being told that producers did not want performers passing on their material and, thus, effecting the industry word on the project. Reading without an offer is the way of the world for many now.
Some of the most prominent names in film and television switched sides. The end of the sellers' market meant big name agents became producers, even executives, as the party was ending for many of their clients. Today, most agencies, one could argue, work for the buyers. Agents realize that their ten percent of their clients' income comes from the studios and networks as a cushion shot. It is banked off of their clients, but it comes from the buyers. When I started in this business, agents went to war with the buyers on behalf of their clients over casting and money. Agents still fight for their clients to get a role, but the money discussion is brief. The buyers essentially fax over the deal and the artist says yea or nay.
The strike may go on for a variety of reasons. On one hand, the writers are cursed because they are right on most issues but they are awful negotiators. They got screwed in 1988 and expect the buyers to make up for that, like some kind of reparations. That will never happen. The time for making that situation right was 1988. The studios have a different problem. They are owned by huge, creativity-deadening corporations and operated by lawyers and marketing executives who lord over the worst creative decline I have witnessed in a long time, particularly in films. In television, companies like GE view properties like NBC the way realtors view square footage. GE does not care what is on NBC. So long as the programming is relatively inoffensive, they want to earn as much per square foot as they can. In the current strike, the writers expect the buyers to have a soul. The buyers, who cannot count a real filmmaker or television programmer among them, view a soul as an impediment to business.
The strike should end now. The writers should go back to work. Continue negotiating, but go back to work. The report in yesterday's New York Times about NBC buying blocks of programming from "outside producers" is a view to our future. Just as MOWs were killed off the networks and original movies became the exclusive realm of the cable broadcasters, one can envision a future where more scripted programming moves to cable. Eventually, HBO and Showtime, et al, may become the place to find the bulk of scripted shows. With these people calling the shots, anything is possible.
In the meantime, the writers, and the other sellers as well, have a different idea they can try. I recall when a popular late night talk show host skewered the head of his own network for a prolonged run, right there on his show. On and on it went and, from what I heard, that network head was apoplectic. These people have bigger egos than even the stars themselves, but without any sense of humor. I want the WGA to set up a website and on that website we can all post stories about every no-talent, idiotic, amoral producer and executive we have ever dealt with. Just like they do to us on shows like Extra and sites like TMZ (owned by Warner Brothers.) Set up a website and tell the entire world, via the internet, your own anecdote about some of the witless boobs you have endured in Hollywood and beyond. The strike will end in a week.
A post script...
Yesterday's New York Times reported the death of David Oppenheim, the former dean of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Oppenheim helped build the modern Tisch school, along with generous members of the philanthropic Tisch family, into one of the most well-regarded and competitive academic institutions in the country. Oppenheim, whose career began as a clarinetist at Tanglewood and the New York Symphony Orchestra, produced records for the CBS Masterworks label and for the programming for the PBS series Omnibus.
I hold a personal debt to Oppenheim, who, in the early 1990s, helped me to return to NYU to complete my own degree. After leaving NYU in 1980 to pursue my career, I graduated with a BFA in drama in 1994. NYU and the Tisch School changed my life and David Oppenheim was a big part of that.
Read more strike coverage on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.