Posts Tagged ‘labor’
Hollywood is awash in blockbusters, huge-budget movies that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars from box offices around the globe. Film production in New York is at record levels, and studios will be rolling out dozens of big sequels, sci-fi adventures, comedies and star vehicles this year. But screenwriters are finding it more difficult than ever to make a living in this business. How could this be?
The major studios are owned by multinational conglomerates that seem stuck in an Old Economy way of thinking: minimize risk and maximize promotion; play it safe with product development and hope the market keeps absorbing what you’re selling. This approach didn’t work so well in the automobile industry, which learned the hard way that innovation and product quality are keys to long-term success. But the movie business keeps consolidating to the perceive security of conformism.
Don’t get me wrong. Audiences tend to be pretty smart, and many recent hits have been intelligent, well-constructed explorations of important cultural and political themes. Or at least they’ve been powerfully entertaining. But it is almost inevitable that the focus on mega-movies squeezes out films that are more intimate, independent, intriguing and innovative.
Many members of the Writers Guild of America, East, do very well in this context. Their genius for crafting stories that move and cohere, for developing characters with depth and appeal, is the foundation upon which big studio productions are built – and producers know it. Unfortunately, other Guild members find it increasingly difficult to work in the current environment. Studios are not spending nearly as much in development, so writers who do not present a sure, bankable thing have fewer opportunities to expand their ideas into complete projects. Financing for independent films has nearly disappeared, and the major studios’ emphasis on reliable box-office returns means that fewer and fewer small, more thoughtful films get from screenplay into production. Thus, opportunities for screenwriters are shrinking.
There was a time when Hollywood put writers on staff, paying them to develop ideas and to craft screenplays in order to feed a growing production machine. Now, virtually every film-writing job is freelance – that is, the screenwriter must pitch an idea to a studio or a producer; or must convince the producer that he or she would bring the just the right vision or chops to a project the studio has already decided to pursue; or must sell himself or herself as the perfect choice to rewrite or tighten up an already-drafted screenplay. And, of course, the screenwriter does not want to seem too demanding or uncooperative because that might make it harder to get hired on future projects. In other words, at each phase of the movie-making process, screenwriters increasingly devote themselves to self-marketing. This creates pressure on writers to offer more work for less pay—or even for no pay at all.
Perhaps classical economic theory would suggest this is a fine thing. And at some level of abstraction it is true that, when the supply of a particular service exceeds the demand, the price will drop. But that is more of an ideological construct than a description of the real world. If we want people to write compelling films that educate and entertain us, they need to be able to earn a decent living doing so; a race to the bottom, economically, would undermine the quality of what we watch. In any event, our research indicates that most of our members who are employed are paid significantly above the minimum rates negotiated by the union, and working members report that their “quotes” have been steady or have increased in recent years. It seems that getting a gig is more difficult than ever, and once you get the gig you have to work harder, but the pay has remained good. So much for classical economics.
People become screenwriters because it is their passion to create compelling films; to do that, they have to get hired (this includes people who bring complete ideas or scripts to the studio). And once they get hired, they want their vision to be realized on-screen – in other words, they want the movie to be made. This makes it very difficult to resist the pressure to write more for less compensation. In my view, as the WGAE grapples with the new realities of the film industry, we need to think about how to address this underlying dynamic. How do we protect members from the pressure to work for free in order to get hired to work for pay, and in order to get their movies made?
It is against Writers Guild rules to write without getting paid – no free writing to get hired, no free rewriting. But I am not sure a successful strategy can be based solely on requiring individual members to risk that they will not get hired, or will not have their work produced. In 2012, we hope to generate a robust conversation among screenwriters to develop better strategies. Our project is to identify other methods of ensuring that people who have devoted themselves to the craft of film-writing can be rewarded for their work and can earn a decent living. Perhaps there is a way to insist that the studios increase development funding, or make resources available for smaller films, or provide steadier employment for more writers. We shall see what some creative thinking can produce.
Good news from Washington—the federal agency charged with enforcing labor law—the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] – has proposed modifying its rules to close the loopholes that employers use to delay and discourage employees seeking union representation. American Rights at Work explains that “by cutting back on needless bureaucracy and discouraging costly, frivolous litigation, the proposed rule modernizes the union election process. In so doing, the rule would improve stability and reduce conflict in the workplace.” If the rules are made final, this will be the most significant positive change at the NLRB in decades.That’s why the Guild quickly mobilized our members to sign on to a group petition in support of the rules change. Our friends at the Service Employees International Union coordinated a mass petition drop-off, hand delivering our signatures along with those it collected. SEIU’s Richard Negri blogged: “When I told NLRB Executive Secretary Lester A. Heltzer that he was holding a letter signed by more than 15,000 workers and worker activists who support the proposed rule change, he was impressed, saying the action was ‘definitely a first.’”
Many of the Guild members who signed our petition wrote comments explaining why this issue is so important to them. WGAE member Brad Desch wrote “at a time when working people are having such a hard time making ends meets and living decently, this protection is more important than ever.” Council Member Ted Schreiber explained “the freedom to organize IS freedom of speech.” Hillary Martin wrote “I never got rich working as a Union member. But I saw my non-union colleagues working 7-day weeks and in constant fear of losing their jobs.”
The petition delivery coincided with two days of hearings on the rule change in which labor groups, employees struggling to join unions, respected academics and economists faced off against high priced union-busting law firms who make a living by blocking people from joining unions. The AFL-CIO’s live coverage of the hearings is still online.
Labor attorney Hope Singer testified in support of the modifications, explaining how the current delays hurt creative professionals in the entertainment industry:
“Under the present system, any employer who wishes to ensure that there will be no union representation can have that wish met, and the movie will be completed, released worldwide with advanced DVD purchases on Amazon and eventually at your local convenience store before an election [to join a union] can be held.”
Speaking of which, executives at the nonfiction TV production company ITV Studios are still delaying the ratification of their employees’ vote to join the Guild. It has been 7 months and counting. WGAE member Janice Legnitto included a pertinent message to the NLRB along with her petition signature. She wrote;
“For the past two decades, the cable television industry has destroyed writers’ ability to earn salaries that are commensurate with other TV professionals such as camera men and women and editors. The result has been devastating for writers’ economic survival. This has happened while the industry has reaped record profits year after year.
The only way that writers can win the right to earn a fair wage and share profits with cable TV owners is to make it possible for them to have the right to vote in free and fair elections in every cable television shop in America.”
We will keep you posted on ways to support writers and producers in nonfiction TV. Send an email to email@example.com if you’d like to be on our email list.
ADDENDUM: the AFL just posted a blog post explaining what the rules changes would do and wouldn’t do.
Among the many TV ad jingles sadly cluttering my brain since childhood (although useful in trivia contests) is the one that went, “The finest apples from Apple Land/Make Mott’s Apple Sauce taste grand!”
A branchful of the juicy, singing fruit would belt it out at the end of commercials that urged us to use applesauce to accompany meats, slather onto bread, spoon on top of ice cream, spackle drywall, you name it.
The Mott’s commercials were especially meaningful where I grew up because we lived in Apple Land — western New York State, not far from the town of Williamson, where workers at a Mott’s factory have been out on strike since May 23rd.
The job action was started by 305 working men and women, members of Local 220 of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Whether they win or lose could play a role in determining the future of organized labor — and the vanishing American middle class.
Mott’s purchases between six and seven million bushels of New York apples every year — more than half of all the apples produced in the state — and has gone through a number of acquisitions and consolidations since Samuel R. Mott, a Quaker who made his own apple cider and vinegar, founded the company in 1842.
Today it’s owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPS), based in Plano, Texas. Ever since the takeover, union members claim, the family spirit at the factory that once included an effective worker-management safety committee, Christmas parties, Easter hams and company picnics has been destroyed. Corporate greed, they say, has marched in with a vengeance.
I first met Bruce Beal, Local 220’s recording secretary and a member of its executive board at an AFL-CIO meeting in Albany, NY, last week. (Full disclosure: I’m president of the Writers Guild of America, East, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) We caught up again on the phone, just as he and fellow strikers were seeing off a delegation of members headed out to an informational picket at a Dr. Pepper Snapple facility in Illinois.
Beal said he and the other union workers were shocked when DPS — despite a profit of $555 million on sales of $5.5 billion last year — demanded massive contract concessions; among them, slashing wages by $1.50 an hour, the elimination of pensions for new employees, a 20 percent reduction in their 401K’s and a change in their health plan Beal says would force members to pay out of pocket an additional $6000-8000 a year.
In an official statement playing on the region’s economic hardship, the company declared that, “DPS workers in Williamson enjoy significantly higher wages than the typical manufacturing employee in Western New York… As a public company, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group has a fiduciary responsibility to operate in the best interests of all of its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities.”
Bruce Beal dismissed the DPS argument as “a line of bull… They don’t give a rip about their employees, just lining their pockets is all they’re concerned with.” He points to Larry Young, the company’s CEO, whose salary has risen 113 percent over the last three years to $6.5 million, and says that workers were told that they were nothing more than a “commodity, like soybeans… When we talked about how the company’s demands would cause our members to lose their homes or have their cars repossessed, they looked right at us and said, ‘You are living beyond your means.’”
Beal says the union has heard that other profitable businesses are discussing the strike and saying that if DPS wins, they, too, will demand massive concessions. But as Local 220’s president Mike LeBerth told The New York Times, “Corporate America is making tons of money — this company is a good example of that. So why do they want to drive down our wages and hurt our community? This whole economy is driven by consumer spending, so how are we supposed to keep the economy going when they take away money from the people who are doing the spending?”
Trucks will now be pulling up to the Mott’s factory gate with this year’s crop. Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, said its members will have to cross the picket line: “When apples are ripe, they have to be harvested, and growers will be delivering this year’s apple crop to the Mott’s plant as usual… It is not done as a sign of support or a gesture of disrespect to either side.”
According to Bruce Beal, “Our fight is with the company and not with the farmers. They have to make a living, too.” He urged anyone interested to go the strikers website, www.mottsworkers.org, for more information or to contribute to their Hardship Fund. Others have suggested a boycott of all of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group’s products, which also include 7 Up, Hawaiian Punch and Canada Dry.
Meanwhile, DPS refuses to come back to the bargaining table and on Monday, August 30, the workers will mark Day 100 of their strike. Maybe they can get the singing apples from those vintage TV commercials to change their tune and learn some good old-fashioned labor songs. Like the one that asks, “Which Side Are You On?”
Michael Winship is president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.