In the Recession of 2009, America needs writers more than ever. Writers in the entertainment industry create the stories most seen around the world. And it is the unique American narrative that continues to be a shining light for democracy and free speech.
As the lifeblood of the industry, writers are dramatically under-valued. This point is too often forgotten by executives who consider writers merely the delivery system for generating awards and cash to celebrities and star directors. Of course, we all want to get paid. And we all would love to win Oscars or Emmys. But as we witnessed during the award season and at the box office this year, if box office totals and celebrity are your only two goals, you may lose out on both. "Slumdog Millionaire" had no big stars. It was never expected to win anything. The filmmakers only attempted to tell a story they all believed in: how two street children from Mumbai fell in love. Without question, an immensely talented director and actors brought this story to life. But what they brought to life are the words of a writer who started with the blank page.
The movie also proved that what's lacking in entertainment today isn't a distracted audience. They are showing up to movies more than ever. What's lacking is the same thing that plagues American businesses and will continue to be the reason they fail. What's lacking is vision.
Vision is what created some of the greatest American exports. Aaron Spelling, George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Aaron Sorkin, Spike Lee, David Kelley, Steven Bochco, David Simon, Tyler Perry, David Chase, Alan Ball, Larry David, Glen & Les Charles, Darren Starr, Nora Ephron, JJ Abrams, Dave Chappelle, Joss Whedon, Mark Cherry, Woody Allen, Nancy Meyers, Judd Apatow, Shonda Rhimes, Matthew Weiner, Ed Zwick. These writers are all national treasures. They transformed the modern landscape of American entertainment not by recycling last season's hits or following a formulaic story stencil, but by staying true to their singular vision.
Even top-tier writers find it difficult to resist the onslaught of studio 'notes' and re-writes. Without the protection of the WGA (Writers Guild of America), most writers would find it impossible to stand up to the big studios in negotiating a fair salary or script fees, preserving their credits (to which residuals and numerous other payouts are attached), and maintaining health insurance and a pension plan. The capacity of writers to have their stories protected through a collective bargaining body is only possible through a strong union.
Whatever your feelings are about the Writers' Strike of '08, the issue it addressed-- ensuring that writers share in the profits of the ever expanding new media outlets they help popularize-- will be critical for future writers to change the landscape with their pens or laptops. New media has prompted professional collaboration where writers (aka "content creators") are developing entirely new genres outside of traditional models, which will undoubtedly lead the way for the next generation of entertainment. As the financial model in new media increases profit margins, writers will require a strong union to legally protect their content (i.e. as scripts are registered and credited now) and ensure due payments are received (as with the current pay scale 'minimums' and residual guidelines set in commercial film and television).
As American business, technology, and the arts undergo drastic transformations in the new century, our entertainment industry will have to keep up. English is spoken in more countries than any other language in the world. There has never been more of a demand for original content on television, movie, computer, and cell phone screens. Only if Americans value vision as much as profit-- and only if we protect our writers-- will we ensure that the unique American narrative beckons to the world as brightly as the light on Lady Liberty's torch.