The Writers Cartel of America

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On Monday,
one of Hollywood’s protectionist show business cartels — the Writers
Guild of America (WGA) — went on strike. One would think that these
generally talentless hacks would be embarrassed to belong to an
organization so named, let alone take good money for the habitually
putrid crapola they create. A negotiator observed
publicly last Friday that working industry writers, on average,
earn over $200,000 a year, receive high-quality health benefits,
and are among the few employees in the world who get an additional
annuity in the form of residual payments.

Yet these great
contributors to modern literature — craftsman who have brought us
such classics as Showgirls,
Walker:
Texas Ranger
and any soap opera ever produced — are actually
taking to the streets and handing out flyers, explaining why they
should be paid a bigger piece of the DVD/Internet porkpie when it
comes to movie and TV show profits.

Writers have
always been treated like dirt in Hollywood, and I do sympathize
in this regard. Their screenplays are usually considered mere “blueprints”
— to be modified at will — and the directors get all the glory.
Naturally, this is unpleasant for any writer with a brilliant vision
who has created something worthwhile, but considering what the industry
typically generates — action films, dopey sitcoms, chick flicks,
etc. — any writer living in L.A. must surely know the score. Showbiz
producers and execs can be quite effective when it comes to mangling
scripts, so this doesn’t help, but anyone writing episodes of Women’s
Murder Club can hardly complain when they add “SHE LOOKS at
HIM with LUST in HER EYES” to the stage directions of his serious
work of art.

It’s an odious
little system. Writers are not supposed to write “on spec” (speculation).
This means a producer isn’t allowed to say, “Hey, Fischer, we’re
looking for a Baywatch ripoff that takes place in the center
of the Earth — go write a screenplay and maybe we’ll pay you for
it.” Instead, according to the WGA
schedule of minimums
, the writer currently gets a minimum of
$25,599 to write a “treatment” (detailed synopsis), then $22,249
more for a first draft, etc. This is called “scale” (the guild minimum).
It may work nicely for members of the cartel, but an unknown writer,
without an agent (i.e., mandatory double-talking middleman), will
be conveniently excluded from this arrangement. Thus the WGA protects
its members and their livelihood from outsiders, just like any cartel.
This way a few lucky people (often friends and relatives of industry
insiders) are able to earn a nice, easy living, while other, perhaps
more talented people are prevented from earning a single dollar.
(By the way, if you have an agent and/or manager protecting your
interests, why do you also need a guild?)

However, newcomers
will essentially write on spec anyway, arriving in L.A. in droves
every year, a bucketful of scripts in hand, almost all of them amateurish
and lame. If they manage to see an agent and he likes their ideas,
some newbies may, in fact, get lucky. Note that when such a script
is sold it typically doesn’t matter how well it is written. If the
idea seems highly commercial, a newbie’s screenplay might
be bought at scale, and then passed on to other writers for a second
draft. (Just for fun, if you can find the original Alien
screenplay on the web, you’ll be amazed how puerile and laughable
it is. It still astounds me that it was ever sold, especially since
it was a blatant steal of 1958′s It:
The Terror from Beyond Space
.) Note that once you sell a
script, you must join the WGA immediately, or the sale will
be canceled. If you decide to be a “scab” and sell something during
a writers’ strike, after it’s over you will be denied membership
in the WGA and, for all intents and purposes, any potential future
sales (unless, if memory serves, you pay back what you earned plus
an extra 10% — to the WGA, not the producer).

Apparently
showbiz writers are afraid of competition, or perhaps are dimly
aware that almost anyone can compose much of the drivel for which
they are so handsomely paid. To prove it, watch any soap opera,
and write down a few pages of dialog. Notice how pathetic it looks
on paper. See if you can edit and improve it. I’ll wager that if
you received at least a “B” in high school English (any year) you
can do better. Now you know why there is a Writers Guild — your
spinster aunt could write this offal, and she’d be happy to do so
for a fraction of the WGA minimum.

In a free marketplace,
of course, none of this would exist. Folks would register their
scripts (more cheaply than the $20 the WGA charges, since there
would be competition) and send them to producers, who would simply
make monetary offers to their creators. Naturally there would be
some thievery, but there has always been plenty of that going on.
(A novel that I was lucky enough to see published thirty years ago
had seventeen plot and character elements “borrowed” by a brainiac
who used them in his own novel. I later found a newspaper story
stating that the author liked to read novels during his train ride
to work, and he “combined” some of them into his own. Oh, this person
happened to be a lawyer, and the one I consulted informed me: “He
knew what he was doing — the similarities are just a wee bit tenuous
to file a lawsuit.”)

In the open
market, a great screenplay by an unknown talent might command a
lot more money than it does now, while all the inane junk would
command far less than current scale. As in any free market, equilibrium
would automatically settle in, and the goods in question — in this
case written words — would fetch what the market deems they are
worth, and not the arbitrary minimums that are demanded by the WGA
cartel. Whenever a market is freed, these always emerge: more, better
and cheaper.

November
6, 2007

Andrew
S. Fischer has worked in various fields.

Andrew
S. Fischer

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