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May Day March

mayday1On May 1, the 125th anniversary of the campaign for the eight-hour work day, WGAE led a march in New York City to Atlas Media, a nonfiction TV company known as a flagrant union buster and violator of overtime and labor law. Convening at Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, WGAE members and staffers joined ranks with hundreds of other union members to protest Atlas and other companies who are trying to suppress the fundamental right to organize and who are committing wage theft.

The rise of Nonfiction and Reality Television has been dramatic in New York City. While profits are being made hand over fist, many thousands of employees in the industry — part of the new freelance economy — are obligated to work 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours a week without overtime pay, healthcare, pensions, vacation, sick days or any basic protections. Atlas Media is one of the biggest offenders, with a notorious reputation as a postmodern digital sweatshop.

mayday2Atlas Media is well-known throughout the television industry as one of the worst places for producers and associate producers to work. That reputation has been earned from a history of overtime violations, low pay, lack of benefits or any basic protections — and a general disrespect towards employees. Moreover, to this rap sheet Atlas has added union busting as they have recently flouted labor law to suppress union-organizing efforts by their producers and associate producers.

“As the hundreds of activists made clear rallying outside Atlas’ offices, wage theft is wrong, it’s a crime, and New Yorkers will not tolerate it,” said Lowell Peterson, Executive Director of WGAE. “The company needs to stop exploiting its employees and it needs to respect their right to negotiate improvements in their benefits and working conditions.”


Behind the “Best Screenplay” Awards

Photo: Ken Goodman

Letty Aronson accepts Woody Allen's WGA Award for Best Original Screenplay. Photo: Ken Goodman

Is a WGA Award a true predictor of Oscar gold? That was certainly the case this year, as both the WGA and AMPAS chose The Descendants and Midnight in Paris as respective winners in their Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay categories. (This year’s only noticeable difference, it turns out, was but one of presentation: at the Writers Guild Awards, Letty Aronson, producer of Midnight in Paris and Woody Allen’s sister, was allowed onstage to accept Allen’s statuette.) But pomp and circumstance aside, The Descendants’ and Midnight in Paris’ 2012 WGA-Oscar “doubles” illustrate a growing convergence in awards-season decisions between WGA and the Academy.

Indeed, 2012 marked the sixth time in the last eight years that both WGA and the Academy opted to honor the same writers for Best Adapted and Best Original Screenplays.

With two exceptions–in 2011, when the Academy chose The King’s Speech over WGA Award­-winner Inception for Best Original Screenplay; and in 2010, when the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay went to Precious after the WGA Award had gone to Up in the Air—recent history of the two Best Screenplay awards has been noteworthy for Guild-Oscar synergy. From 2005 to 2009, the WGA and Academy agreed on their Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay winners every year.

Before the beginning of that streak, however, the WGA and the Academy had demonstrated across-the-board agreement only five times since 1985, the year WGA adopted its current two-fold “Best Adapted” and “Best Original” categorizations.

While both the WGA and Academy seek to honor the finest in screenwriting in a given year, the differing imperatives of the two organizations can explain incongruities in their choices of winners. The Writers Guild of America is, of course, a labor union whose prime directive is the representation of the rights of screenwriters in the workplace. To that end, then, only films produced under the jurisdiction of the Writers Guild of America (or an affiliate Guild) are eligible for consideration for WGA Awards. The Academy does not consider the terms and conditions under which nominee films were created.

The recent harmony among WGA and Oscar-winners, then, is heartening. By awarding Oscars to screenplays that have already met the WGA’s stricter eligibility requirements, the Academy is, in effect, tacitly validating the Guild’s mission of honoring both great art and the artists who labor to create it.

“Our goal is not to provide spin for the Oscars,” says Lowell Peterson, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, East, “but to give writers the opportunity to honor other writers. We believe writers should be paid decently, and should receive the benefits negotiated by the Guild or by our sister guilds abroad. The Academy doesn’t require that writers be treated well, and sometimes non-Guild films are nominated for writing Oscars. But that is increasingly rare.”

Top 10 Reasons to Become a Screenwriter by Catie Lazarus

Dalton Trumbo at work in the tub

1. You possess a laptop, New Balance sneakers and a tendency towards self-delusion.

2. You feel you have too much control over your life as it is.

3. In Hollywood, no one will ever wonder if you’ve had work done.

4.  If you went to Harvard, you’ll easily score a plum TV writing gig. Oh wait—you would’ve scored a plum job anyway.

5. Fastest way to convert your 120-page diatribe about snakes on a plane into cash.

6. You’ll have plenty of downtime to play Words With Friends.

7. If you’ve seen the Hallmark Hall of Famer Riding the Bus with My Sister, you must have thought, “I can do that! I can write that poorly.”

8. In entertainment, you’ll be considered an intellectual.

9. You’re cool waiting 43 years to cash a pay check, because that’s about how long it takes Disney to deliver it.

10.  It’s your best chance to touch Halle Berry (at least your words might touch her).

Catie Lazarus is a writer.  ECNY awarded her “Best Comedy Writer,” and she currently hosts EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH at UCB, a talk show and podcast.