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 naïve 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.


blogward said...

First visit - not the last. Mindblowingly on the nose.

Carla said...

As I was reading your post a few things occurred to me. One being, that as a nation, we can't exist as a marginally financially secure nation without labor unions. I've never belonged to a union, but within the last almost 8years (Bush math) I have become an ardent supporter of unions, for very obvious reasons.
Secondly, I don't watch an hours’ worth of TV a week. I get ALL my entertainment from the computer or DVD. No offense to you as a writer, there is 'some' good stuff out there, but my interests are elsewhere. How will the studios and networks reconcile that loss of viewer with their bottom lines? I love the fact that if I want to watch My Name is Earl that I can sit at my desk and do it any-time-I-want. I’m watching it on NBC website, someone wrote the script, I see advertising and commercials, not really much different than watching TV.
Perhaps the Guild and the Studios need to have mediators from the 'real' world come in and tell them how it works. I'm sure I won't get any credit for this idea. But then again I won't get paid for it either.

Samuel said...

What a funny story, sad, disturbing, rage-ifiing (should be a word), and probably be considered too unrealistic if it was plotted out on 30 Rock.

Jake Hollywood said...

Your experience is sadly reflective of almost every writer I've ever encountered (mine included) in this business...

So sad, so true.