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.

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