Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dead Again.

As this strike goes on, we frequently confront the “marketplace” argument against us.

Roughly, it goes something like this: “if writers think they deserve more, then they should just write better scripts, for which the marketplace – studios and networks – will pay them more.”

Let me tell you a little story about how it doesn’t work that way.

In 1990 I was barely out of college and already I’d had more luck in Hollywood than many people have their whole lives.  I was working as an assistant at Paramount, for a production company called Triangle.  Now, as you know from high school geometry, triangles have three vertices.  In the case of Triangle Entertainment, one of those vertices was Paramount, one of them was Bob Broder, and the final vertex was the successful little writing/directing team of Glen Charles, Les Charles, and Jim Burrows.

By 1992 I had an agent.  I was taking meetings.  I was on my way.  It was an auspicious start.

One of my meetings was at MTV (a tiny little subsidiary of Viacom), where they were looking to get into scripted programming.  My agent told me to go pitch them some ideas, which I did, and all were soundly rejected by the executive, who told me to go away and think about what would better fit the MTV brand.  I was too na├»ve to realize this just meant go away, so I did some thinking and came back.

The exec must have admired my persistence, because he kept hammering me with the importance of the MTV brand, and instead of folding I just kept coming back at him with stuff that might fit it.

And eventually, something did.  And eventually, after innumerable treatments and pilots, I was going to be able to lay claim to being the creator of MTV’s very first scripted series, Dead at 21.

Or so I thought.

Yes, I had created the show.  But now MTV was saying I hadn’t.  They argued they couldn’t give me a “Created by” credit because the development executive had contributed a lot to the process.  I think at the time my reaction was, “I thought that was his job.”  Today my reaction would more likely be, “Are you out of your fucking mind?! That’s his job!”  My agent explained that it wasn’t actually the creative part they had a problem with, it was that with “Created by” came certain financial minimums set by the WGA – and MTV didn’t want to pay those minimums.

MTV hadn’t just seen in me someone persistent, they’d also seen someone who’d work cheap – and nothing wrong with that: with youth and inexperience comes a price.  A low, low price.  Another good way to get cheap labor is not only to pay the young and inexperienced less for what they do, but to not pay them at all for what they do.  And one way you can do that is to do what MTV did to me: have their giant corporation create two shell companies: the first a non-Guild signatory to produce my pilot, and the second a Guild signatory company to produce the series.  That way the series could hire experienced Guild writers like P.K. Simonds (Ghost Whisperer) and Manny Coto (24), while not a single episode ever had to bear the fiscally burdensome words “Created by Jon Sherman.”

So in the end, technically I didn’t “create” MTV’s first scripted series.  Dead at 21 was a “Series Based on a Teleplay by Jon Sherman.” (Are you out of your fucking mind?! That’s what creating a TV series is).

So as this strike wears on and we wear thin, as our detractors assail us as greedy or as spoiled, remember: this isn’t about those of us who can command a price, it’s about those of us who can’t, those who need the protection of a basic minimum agreement – because a giant corporation will get away with whatever it can.  I know, from firsthand experience.

The Future Is Already Here.

One day, we'll all get our TV this way:
 


Pioneer, the manufacturer, says:

Once you have subscribed to a channel on SyncTV, you can download as many current and classic TV shows from that channel as you want, with many of the TV shows including every episode of every season. Our choice of channels is 'a la carte' so you only need to subscribe to the channels you love and let the entertainment begin!

And then you know what would begin?  

The studios would claim they didn't owe the writers, actors, or directors any residuals on these shows, because they're not being broadcast, they're downloads -- being delivered over the Internet.  And if the studios don't have an contract with the WGA that requires them to pay for programs delivered over the Internet, what do you think they'll do?

And that's why we're still on strike.

 

Friday, December 14, 2007

Jon Sherman, Crimestopper!™

Strangest thing happened today.

Okay, maybe not that strange, given that our precious little privileged subset of Venice is surrounded by territory that's largely considered gang territory, but still -- strange for me.

I stopped a burglary.

Not a big burglary. There were no jewels or cars or government secrets involved. It was a bike. My wife's bike, actually, a gift I'd given her a few years back. A cool pink beach cruiser that sits near the opening of our garage -- a garage which, as a rule is always closed unless we're actually going in or out of it.

Except for today.

The kids were napping, and as the garage sits directly below our 3 year-old's room, my wife opted to leave it open until she went out to the market, as the opening/closing of the garage door can be a little noisy. She actually said to me, "it's okay, right -- it's probably safe, don't you think?" And my answer was yes. Because our neighborhood is safe. Our neighbors leave their garage doors open all the time as we come and go out of our homes.

And then she said it again, a little later: "it's safe, right?"

And it was at that moment that I actually heard something moving in the garage -- something I assumed was the postman dropping off the mail, or a kid leaving a flyer or something. Which was why our dog Leona was standing at the door making noises -- it was probably nothing, right?

Wrong.

I open the door and there's a guy stealing my wife's bike.

I flipped. Or, rather, a switch inside me did, because in that moment I became someone I didn't know existed. The litany of obscenities that erupted from within me were coming from a place so deep inside that it was acting without any interference whatsoever from my conscious brain. There was a "what the fuck do you think you're doing?"

The guy dropped the bike and took off running.

And I took off after him.

And the obscenities continued.

"You think you can fucking steal from me, you piece of shit? I'm going kick your fucking ass!" I heard myself scream as the guy sprinted away from me.

I could see he was about my age, maybe a little older, and was likely a transient -- I picked that up from the black pack on his back that held a rolled up blanked on its side.

I was gaining on him, so he decided to drop the pack, mid-run. I kept running past it.

"Oh, you think you're fast, huh motherfucker?" Clearly, I was still not myself.

And I was gaining on him. Quickly.

And then it happend: I caught him. Or up to him, which he sensed and just stopped -- and surrendered, cowering as I raised my fists -- which seemed like the right thing to do in the moment, though as I stood facing the guy, saying "I'm going to beat the fucking shit out of you," it seemed like overkill. The guy said, "I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." and then, "I'm hungry."

He clearly didn't want a fight, which left me sort of confused, despite the fact that I really didn't want one, either. My dukes were, after all, up.

But what was I gonna do? Beat the shit out of him because he almost stole the bike? I guess I could have, he clearly wasn't going to put up much resistance.

Instead, I just walked away. I think I yelled, "I've got your stuff, asshole." As he scurried away. And he really did scurry -- like a cockroach, suddenly caught in the kitchen light.

I felt a little defeated having let him walk away. I second-guessed that right afterward, thinking, "I should have made him come back, I should have forced him to stick around."

But, as it turns out, I made the right decision. Our local security patrol phoned in to the LAPD who wanted us to call them. They had no interest in an attempted robbery. If we wanted to report it, we were to call the non-emergency line. They weren't even going to send an officer over.

The security guy told me some stories that made it pretty clear: had I hit the guy, it would have been me that would've been in trouble, not him. Had I detained him, he would have just been let go, since once again, it wasn't a robbery, as nothing had successfully been taken.

The security guy looked through his pack, which yielded nothing beyond some clothing -- no ID, nothing to indicate who the guy was at all, outside of down on his luck.

He took the pack and told us he was going to set it out on the corner, in case the guy came back, as it might help avert any potential retribution.

"Retribution?" I thought. "The guy was trying to steal from us -- but we're making sure he doesn't have any hard feelings about it?" Christ.

My wife left a while later for the store. The pack was still on the corner.

By the time she returned, it was gone.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sonnet I Couldn’t Fit On My Picket Sign

Executives, whom lately we have ankled:
What occupies you now, in your desk chairs?
Does your telephone’s vile silence have you rankled?
Are you experts now at minesweeper, solitaire?

And have you, like I, begun even to miss
The meetings we both knew were wasted breath?
Where drunk on free Crystal Geyser I would kiss
Your ass and say to you, “I love ‘Til Death!”

We trudge in circles now, perchance we think
Of pilots we could pen, screenplays to spec.
Then we dismiss them and go look up Nikki Finke
On our iPhones… no new news… and on we trek.

Were I to pitch this quarrel as a TV show
I’d say, “think 30 Rock meets The Sopranos.”

by Jon Sherman (with apologies to Nicholas Weinstock)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

We won!

I'm pleased and proud to inform you that Zach was the "Grand Prize Winner" in the Modern Mom "Kids Who Rock" video contest.

Thanks to everyone who voted, and here's his winning entry:


video

Monday, December 3, 2007

VOTE FOR ZACH!

My son's a finalist in this online video contest -- vote early, vote often (seriously, you can vote once a day).


Americans Seven Times More Likely to Back WGA as Studios


49% of Americans who are familiar with the Writers Guild of America’s strike say they’re on the writers’ side; 7% say they’re behind the studios.

Research conducted nationwide November 27, 2007.  1,000 adults were interviewed; 706 identified themselves as being familiar with the strike and were asked these questions. Full results and crosstabs here.


And don't forget:

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- A Variety poll indicated nearly two-thirds of the trade paper's readers said they support the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike since Nov. 5. 

The new survey, which polled 999 subscribers to Variety, found that 61 percent of all respondents said they felt the WGA walkout was necessary.

Among those survey voters the publication described as "creatives," 79 percent backed the writers, said a statement posted on the WGA Web site.

The poll was conducted Nov. 16-21 for Variety by Frank N. Magid Associates.

The survey followed two polls conducted by 
Pepperdine University and SurveyUSA showing widespread public support for the WGA, with 63 and 68 percent support respectively.

In an opinion article in the 
Los Angeles Times, Variety Editor in Chief Peter Bart expressed surprise at the overwhelming support for the writers, describing his readers as "not exactly a predictably pro-labor constituency."



Saturday, December 1, 2007

When He's 64...

I assume he'll know the rest of the words to the song.  And what "chop" means.


video

Interviewed on NPR

NPR keeps coming up to me while I'm on the picket line and asking if they can "talk to me." Then they go and put things I say on the radio.  First they wanted jokes about writers... which we mostly couldn't think of.

Weeks later they wanted to know if we thought the various YouTube videos were working.

I think they are.  And I said so.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Must see not-TV

This, for my money, is the funniest video to come out of the strike so far.

But, then again, I'm on strike and not earning any money.

It's the median, stupid.

Despite the fact that the public overwhelmingly supports the WGA in our strike, there's a piece of misinformation -- actually make that disinformation -- that the AMPTP has successfully foisted upon a soundbite-hungry public. 

If you look at their statement you can roughly decipher that they're saying the average working writer makes over $200,000 a year.  But that "working writer" part is cleverly obscured in their phrasing, giving the impression that an average writer takes in a healthy six figures annually.

And that, of course, is what's been published, repeated, and swallowed whole.  Look here and you'll see it reported as fact by ABC:  Average. Writer. $200K.

And that's why it's so important that you read this.  It's a brief but brilliant distillation of what a total snowjob this is, why even the word "average" is inaccurate.  What we need to be talking about, if we want the real picture here, is the median income because, as the piece cites:

 "if Bill Gates walked into a homeless shelter, the 'average' income would skyrocket, but it wouldn't change the fact that everyone else is poor."

So what is the median income for a WGA member?  Go read the article -- but first you might want to get something soft to cushion your jaw when it drops.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Here's where I get angry.

For a first post, this probably isn't the best reflection of what this blog will eventually be. Ultimately, it's gonna be a hodgepodge of what interests me, which -- unless you're interested in exactly the same things -- may mean it seems a little unfocused.

But, when I read the following, from Henry Blodget on the Huffington Post in his "why no one has sympathy..." piece:

* Employed TV writers and producers already make decent money.

* Those who choose to go into the writing and producing business are usually intelligent, well-educated folks who could have chosen (and still could choose) to go into a better paid business. ( i.e., this isn't a case of oppressive owners exploiting people who have no other options).

Well, I kind of went apoplectic, and so now instead of a light interest piece, an angry response is my first blog entry.

Why so angry? Because Blodgett fails to recognize exactly what this strike is about.

With regard to the first point, that TV writers already make decent money -- yes, that can be true. But how often does a writer make decent money?

Answer: over half of the WGA's members don't earn any annual income as writers.

I've been lucky enough to work pretty consistently, but I have friends who've worked occasionally, intermittently, and sometimes not at all.

What this strike is about is establishing minimums.

When writer isn't bringing in any personal income -- yet a work they helped create continues to bring in revenue over and over over again to a studio or network, it's those minimums that allow a writer to stay afloat.

So let's make something clear: this strike isn't about writers like Jim Brooks or Cameron Crowe or Paul Haggis -- because they don't work for minimums (and yet they've all been out on the picket line) -- this strike is about protecting the little guys, the ones whose names you don't know, because maybe they haven't caught a break yet -- and maybe they never will.

Now, as to the second point, that we're intelligent, well-educated folk who could've chosen other, better paying professions, and are therefore not being exploited...

I take issue with the conclusion. If a studio is profiting from a writer's words over and over without paying a minimal residual (or, in the case of digital distribution any residual), then I say that is exploitation.

I also take issue with Blodget's premise that one's choice (writing) legitimizes one's predicament (little DVD payment, no digital payment). 

If a mine shaft collapses, we don't tell the miners, "well, what'd you expect, choosing that job?" We demand safer mines.  If a woman is raped, we don't say, "well, what'd you expect, choosing to walk down that street?" We demand justice -- and more secure streets.

Yes, circumstances can explain why a situation exists -- but it does not follow that those circumstances justify that situation. Were that so, our reaction to the practice of sweatshops employing children could quite reasonably be, "well where do they expect to work?"

Besides, Blodget, is that really the world you want to live in? One in which intelligent, well-educated folk ignore their abilities, shun their passions, and deny themselves just to enter "a better-paid business"?

I don't.