Q&A: Ezra Sacks on Writers Guild Strike

Jackson West files the following report:

In advance of the Writers Guild of America strike authorization vote that passed Friday, I dropped by the office of WGA member Ezra Sacks, a veteran screenwriter on such films as FM and Wildcats who currently teaches screenwriting to students at New York University.

Admitting that, as a professor with a steady income, his livelihood isn't as threatened by the prospect of a prolonged shutdown, he did start off by declaring that he's "feeing very militant" – a sentiment shared by the 90.3% of fellow members who submitted ballots in favor of the strike.

Sacks continued by quoting an email from a former student whose work online had garnered millions of views but who had failed to gain any contacts in Hollywood. "If he had gone out and done a bunch of music videos that were that celebrated, he'd be directing features now, like Brett Ratner did," Sacks said. Pointing out that someone out there is making money on this work, he wondered if the creative side was "getting their due." And that, he explained, "is why we have the Writers Guild."

NewTeeVee: What about a hypothetical case of a 23-year-old writer or filmmaker faced with working now at the expense of joining the guild ten years from now?

Ezra Sacks: It could be short-sighted on the part of some young person, no matter how talented they are, to go around the Writers Guild or any guild or any union that was on strike, get employment and lose potential protections from the organization after things were resolved. Historically, the guild has always protected the writers in difficult situations, whether it's arbitrations, whether it's producers that aren't paying you, whether it's health, medical – all of these kinds of things. So it might not be a win-win situation for anybody.

NewTeeVee: Could the guild be tempted to concede long-term new media potential in order to secure short-term gains in DVD residuals?

Sacks: Personally, I'd like to see them do both. I don't see why bright men who are really adept at communication can't discuss two things at once. There are ways to deal with things on potential if this is the situation, as opposed to just ignoring it.

NewTeeVee: Might the studios attempt an end-around the union by pouring resources into developing new media, where the WGA doesn't have contracts?

Sacks: It's sort of like the notion of movies on your telephone. There's certainly a business there. [But] I'm not going around watching Lawrence of Arabia on my cell phone, even though I can get it. So if you said to me, "Where do I want to protect my income stream?" It's going to be in other areas. But if my phone becomes what I plug into my TV to watch Lawrence of Arabia, I don't want the people who are doing that to get around paying me my share.

NewTeeVee: What about the possibility to expand writing jobs through more ephemeral media, such as serial three-minute episodes?

Sacks: It's like advertising. And the greatest of commercials are 30-second, one-minute films. Somebody is getting paid for that, whether it's the ad writer or the agency that creates it. Now there may not be residuals involved there, but I bet there are residuals involved for the actors and voices and those participants.

NewTeeVee: But advertising copywriters haven't traditionally been offered membership.

Sacks: Perhaps the Writers Guild and the other guilds should be foresighted enough not to let that happen with the creators of new media. [Portraying a hypothetical writer's concern] "I work for Apple and I'm creating content, so the guild doesn't care about organizing there or being inclusive." And that could be a big mistake ten years from now.

NewTeeVee: What about the resistance to organized labor by technology entrepreneurs and independent productions?

Sacks: Nobody could be more resistant to organization than Henry Ford was, and they got organized. It might have been ruthless, it might have been bloody, it might have taken twenty years, but a big group of people are not going to get ripped off and left unprotected. Now, maybe times are changing, I don't know. It depends on how satisfied people are who are working in new media. If they're happy working in that situation, I don't necessarily know if just because the guild wants to bring them in, they're going to bring them in.

 

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