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Jewish World Review May 2, 2001 / 9 Iyar, 5761

Michael Medved

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Consumer Reports

Emotions, not money,
propel writers strike --
WHY would Hollywood writers, who are supposed to be clever folks, launch a destructive strike that will inevitably undermine their own interests?

If they walk off their jobs, as scheduled today, and they're joined in June by the Screen Actors Guild, the twin job actions may - or may not - do severe damage to the entertainment industry.

If the strike succeeds in crippling the television networks and big film studios, devastating their financial and audience foundations, the long-term result will be more sports and reality shows, but fewer sitcoms, prime-time dramas and major film releases - meaning fewer jobs for writers.

But if the leading companies manage to weather the writers strike with only minor disruption, then the protesting scribes will seem more powerless and irrelevant than ever.

Either way, the writers lose. So what would possess them to press ahead with their demands with little hope of long-term gain?

To understand their motivation, it's essential to keep in mind the eternal frustration of Hollywood scribblers with their low position on the Tinseltown totem pole. An ancient and endlessly retold industry joke asks the question: How can you tell an exceptionally stupid blonde starlet from an aspiring actress who's just normally dumb? Answer: The really, really stupid starlet is the one who will go to bed with the writer of her movie to try to advance her career.

For decades, the people who script popular entertainment have been the Rodney Dangerfields of the industry: Despite their pride in their own creativity and professionalism, they get no public respect. Directors (Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Oliver Stone) and even some producers and executives (Harvey Weinstein, Sherry Lansing) become glamorous celebrities when they make successful films; but very few movie fans recognize the names - let alone the faces - of writers. Even movie reviewers who will go on at length about a director's style or substance and, of course, analyze every detail of the acting performances, will generally ignore the contributions of the hard-working people who created the script.

The underlying motivation for the looming labor struggle is to alter this situation once and for all. As Peter Bart, editor in chief of Variety, writes about the strike: "The dispute is as much about status as it is about money. ... Financially, it would be virtually impossible for writers ever to recoup lost income from a prolonged strike."

Among the prominent Writers Guild demands in the ongoing contract negotiations are calls for more control over script revisions, better access to the sets of films and shows they have written, and more invitations to advance test screenings and premieres. The writers seem particularly insistent on putting an end to the obnoxious practice of giving directors "A Film By" credit even when those ego-intoxicated directors have taken no hand in shaping the script.

In other words, the current conflict involves questions of prestige and creative control that have proved far more intractable than the arguments about dividing the money from home video, the Internet, rebroadcast or DVD.

In a sense, this situation exposes one of the most common misunderstandings about Hollywood in general: the notion that financial gain is the only motivation that matters in the entertainment industry. That's not true for writers - and certainly not true for directors or stars.

Sure, people in show business want to get rich, but their deepest yearning involves becoming rich and famous - and respected by their peers. For most of those in all creative branches of the business, winning an Oscar or another major award would mean much more than fattening a paycheck. Understanding this yearning for public recognition and insider praise helps explain some of the odd quirks of the industry, such as the proliferation of crude language in feature films that bothers so many moviegoers.

No one would suggest that the audience demands these four-letter words or that box-office receipts depend on them, but filmmakers keep them flying to advertise their own edginess and daring and to affirm an odd, misguided sense of integrity.

A similar sense of rebellious integrity and self-dramatization helps push the writers toward a strike that makes no sense. The median income of working members of the Writers Guild now stands at $84,000, but the pending job action allows these well-paid professionals to identify with oppressed workers of the world. Like most other principals in the entertainment industry, writers tilt overwhelmingly to the left, and participating in a bitter, long-running strike against tyrannical "bosses" sounds noble and thrilling.

In the last writers strike 13 years ago (which lasted a punishing 22 weeks), some picketers sang, Solidarity Forever, We Shall Not Be Moved and other rabble-rousing old union songs - as if fighting for more prominent on-screen credits amounted to a major step forward in the long, painful struggle for social justice.

Such sentimentality becomes especially seductive for the one-half of all guild members who classify as currently inactive - having earned no money as writers within the past 12 months. These people have nothing to lose (you can't reduce your income much beyond zero) but may well participate enthusiastically in the strike. For one thing, they feel that an industry shakeup might well create new openings, and for another, the status of "striking writer" sounds ever so much better than that of "unemployed writer."

In context, therefore, the prospect of a wrenching strike makes a strange kind of sense - forcing an unprecedented focus on the role of hard-working wordsmiths too often forgotten by the general public. In terms of long-term financial gain, it may well prove impossible for the writers to win their strike. But in terms of inspiring anguished discussion and seizing the attention they passionately crave, they have already won.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.

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