WGA Strike Primer: Understanding Misunderstanding

Writers at their center are driven to "pass it on" to the next group of writers, and proud to do so. And this is something the AMPTP corporations misunderstand critically.
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For all the flying rhetoric overhead, sometimes you have to wear safety goggles to see the obvious. Eventually that can lead to resolution.

So, first, the obvious:

The corporations of the AMPTP wanted a strike. It's hard not to acknowledge that. Their first offer cut residuals -- that was never serious, but just presenting it showed their hand. Their first straight offer was zero for everything Internet. Guaranteed to get a strike-authorization vote. And then they walked away from negotiating. Later, they increased one of their zero offers to $250 (which could drop back to zero) -- and again walked away from negotiating. And gave writers six ultimatums before they'd return.

These are not stupid people. Malevolent child-eaters perhaps, but not stupid. Think, Hannibal Lecter with a table at Spago. They knew no sane human could ever accept these. They had stockpiled their scripts, and sat comfortable that showrunners would finish all their TV series, that their pilots for next year would all be shot, that their entire slate of movies would be finished over the next six months, as writers held off striking to team up with SAG. At that point, they wouldn't care if actors struck. Because they'd have their nuts all stored away for an Ice Age, able to carefully ration their release over a very long time. Even directors, whether with a deal or not, would find themselves isolated, with nothing to direct.

There was one problem, something the AMPTP corporations completely misunderstood.

Writers aren't stupid either. Petulant, argumentative, annoying perhaps. Lousy businessmen. Worse dressers. But quite smart. And rather than let the corporations stockpile for a long nuclear winter, they struck while the supply was still limited.

The AMPTP also misunderstood that showrunners were not only really smart, too, but were writers -- and they walked out in stunning unanimity. All those stockpiled TV scripts couldn't be filmed. And sit in stockpiles. The AMPTP misunderstood, as well, that stockpiled movie scripts require final polishes, and that companies are wary of spending $100 million without a writer for always-necessary on-set rewrites. The AMPTP corporations misunderstood all of this, while walking away from tables looking toward June and their long hibernation.

Make no mistake, even an early strike is horrific for everyone concerned. No one wins during a strike. The hope is that both sides win once it's over.

Yet the deep misunderstandings continue. And one most of all. But first, it's important to follow the path of misunderstandings.

Alexander Pope's warning is sage, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Indeed, people with limited information often think themselves expert, and it's that crevice where they fall into trouble.

Most outside observers drop into this hole. Unfortunately, the issues in this negotiation are intricate and arcane. One word can make a universe of difference. (Truly. Remember those infamous six ultimatums by the AMPTP? The only demand they care about -- the sixth one they never mention -- is that writers change "distributor's" gross to "producer's." Distributor's gross is money. Producer's gross is words. Few "experts" are remotely aware of this one-word, essential point.)

Articles with "little knowledge" are everywhere. One example for all must suffice. In a recent Huffington blog, producer Ron Galloway irresponsibly chastises the WGA for introducing reality and animation into the negotiations. It seems informed. In fact -- fact -- reality and animation were in the WGA proposal since before the strike was called! (Moreover, they aren't even strike issues. The WGA will never strike over these.) Either Mr. Galloway knows these issues have always been on the table, and he was being deceptive. Or he didn't know, in which case he has no business commenting.

In truth, most people not in the WGA or an AMPTP negotiator have little business commenting. Writers themselves are barely-near comprehension after walking for weeks with thousands of fellow-professionals debating their own livelihood. If it's hard for writers with all that, imagine how almost-impossible for others.

And so, they misunderstand. The best fortunately go to many sources and touch the surface well. The worst let themselves be dupes. And the public gets hit with misunderstanding.

And so we see the John Ridley's and Craig Mazin's of the world quoted regularly for "the other side," without reporters knowing if they are actually explaining the other side, or just their own. Mazin is a WGA member with a personal blog, whose recent entry was wrong in more ways than Dick Cheney about Iraq. Ridley's only saving grace is that he makes Craig Mazin's analysis seem human. (Mr. Ridley's "WGA Film Company" was a bizarre, illegal, impossible fairyland, freakishly made worse by claiming, "This is no fantasy, no act of wild imagination." It was such a fantasy, it made The Lord of the Rings look like an Alan Greenspan treatise on world economics.)

But mainly, the AMPTP misunderstands one huge issue. This is that misunderstanding -- at the heart of the whole, pathetic mess.

The AMPTP -- General Electric, Sony, Time-Warner, News Corp., et al -- being multinational conglomerates, understand the relentless drive for money. But it is not in their corporate DNA therefore to comprehend striking any other reason. Yet there is another reason.

The Writers Guild of America is striking because they absolutely understand that their union's future, indeed their livelihood, is at stake.

This is not hyperbole. It's literal.

Most people misunderstand why the Writers Guild of America is striking, too. But most can grasp it once it's explained. The AMPTP, not so much.

You see, writers have long had a credo of "Pass it on." When I say "long," I mean cave-dwellers, sitting around the fire, enthralling listeners with tales of hope, terror, laughter and enchantment. Passing on stories is a writer's reason for being -- and at the core of that, they pass on their craft to other writers. Writers can be argumentative, isolated and petulant, but they adore what they do -- to sit alone for a lifetime, dreaming up ways to enthrall others, you have to adore what you do -- and so they have a burning desire to see that devotion continued. And so, they pass it on.

WGA writers understand that all the protections they enjoy today -- minimum payment, pensions, health benefits, residuals -- all came because earlier writers risked their careers to get them. The corporations did not provide these out of benevolence. And the entire film industry benefited from the gains the annoying writers got for them.

(Everyone. Do not dare think that Hollywood moguls have suffered from decades of contract demands. We all grasp how profoundly successful Hollywood is to the envy of the world.)

And so writers at their center are driven to pass it on to the next group of writers, and proud to do so. And this is something the AMPTP corporations misunderstand critically.

But it goes deeper than that.

The Internet is not new-fangled. It's not even the future, because it's here. Ed Zwick and Marshall Herkovitz created a successful web series, Quarterlife. Successful enough that network television bought it.

And so, at last, here's that "literal" part. This is what lies ahead. It's really obvious:

TV, movies and the Internet are already so seamlessly merged that streaming, Tivo playback, movie downloads, and network broadcasts run on the home video screen, one and the same. Now, go to the next step.

If corporations only have to pay $250 for residuals on the Internet as opposed to $20,000 on TV -- where do you think all reruns will eventually be shown?

It gets worse. The corporations don't want original Internet content covered for the WGA. Where do you think the first-run "broadcast" of a series will be? After streaming once on the Internet, a company can simply "re-air" it on network TV. It's the same screen. The only difference is that General Electric-Sony-TimeWarner-Fox won't have had to pay more than a pittance for the material.

If you don't think this would happen, you haven't been watching the AMPTP offering zero and walking away from the table.

You haven't been watching media consolidation. Or the Middle Class being shrunk by power at the top. The AMPTP corporations wanted a strike with the Writers Guild, and a strike with SAG. And don't care about the directors.

But that's where they've misunderstood the one huge thing.

They misunderstand that the Writers Guild actually does get it. (SAG, too.) The Writers Guild fully understands that accepting any empty deal will destroy the WGA, lose all their benefits, and wipe out any protections for those to come. They really do get it. That's why you see such a vociferous strike. And it's what the AMPTP corporations misunderstand most of all.

We all read that the AMPTP is angry at WGA negotiators. This is mere petulance. Get over it, act your age. The WGA didn't send over tennis buddies, they chose tough negotiators, just as did the AMPTP. For actual anger, anyone should walk a picket line for hours and talk to actual writers whose actual livelihood, home and future is on the line. You will see people actually livid at the actual gross negligence of blatant corporate greed at its most egregious. And this actual anger is what the AMPTP corporations misunderstand. It's what reporters and observers misunderstand.

And all the writers want is a fair deal for both sides.

Imagine that.

Misunderstanding that writers won't settle for a bad offer because they can't gets in the way of reality, and therefore resolution.

Does this mean the writers won't ever collapse? No, anything is possible. But this is the critical point: if we get that far, where the AMPTP corporations have starved out a siege, it will by then include actors, directors, crew, staffs and the entire industry, and the companies will have destroyed themselves in the process.

And out of the ashes, the creative talent -- who make the movies and TV people watch -- will have found a new canvas to paint on, as they always have throughout history. It will be called the Internet. You know, that thing that doesn't make money. And stories there will continue to amuse, excite, scare, annoy, educate, titillate and entertain everyone. And the old dinosaur movie studios and "TV" networks will be lost in the dust.

It will happen. And the AMPTP companies can join in and even take the lead, or be destroyed by it.

That's why understanding opens the door to resolution. So, understand that the members of Writers Guild of America get it. They know their future depends on the Internet. They know that they need to pass it on. Once anyone understands that, the rest comes like breathing.

Read more about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.

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