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COM’s Schneider on what the writers’ strike means for viewers — and the industry

Some 12,000 Hollywood screenwriters went on strike against the U.S. film and television industry on Monday after last-ditch talks with studios failed to yield a new labor contract.

For months, members of the Writers Guild of America have wrangled with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over compensation based on DVD sales and Internet downloads.

The guild’s New York and Los Angeles chapters stopped work at 12:01 a.m. local time. The last writers’ strike was in 1988, lasted 22 weeks, and cost the economy an estimated $500 million.

So, what are the ramifications of this latest strike? For answers, BU Today sought out Paul Schneider, a College of Communication associate professor of film and television and a Directors Guild of America member.

BU Today: Why are the writers striking?
Schneider:
Years ago, the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild of America, and the Directors Guild of America negotiated away meaningful residual rights to revenue from DVD sales, basic cable, and other venues that they believed to be unimportant at the time. So writers are demanding a bigger slice of revenue from DVD sales and from shows that are viewed over the Internet or mobile phones. Right now, none of the rules that apply to ways in which writers, directors, and actors are compensated for reuse of their work apply on the Internet or iTunes. Because producers, studios, and networks are profiting from the Internet and cell phones, the guilds — rightfully — feel they should profit as well. As it stands now, the producers are essentially taking work that the writers, directors, and actors have created and reselling it without compensating the people who created it.

Who does the strike affect?
It has far-reaching ramifications. Programs that are daily-type shows — for example, late-night shows and comedy shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show — are affected first. Those shows don’t have any episodes stockpiled, and they’ll be shut down immediately. Television series, such as dramas and sitcoms, have a few episodes stockpiled, so it will take longer for the strike to affect them. Feature films have an even bigger stockpile, but if the strike goes on for a long time, it will affect the motion picture industry, too. The other complication that arises is that a lot of writers in television are also producers. More than 50 percent of all television shows are produced by writer-producers, and they’re in a bind because on one hand, they’re not supposed to write, but on the other hand, they’re supposed to perform their duties as producers, and there are legal ramifications to that. Writer strikes are bad for everyone. It’s been 20 years since the last one, and it was terrible. People lost their homes, and marriages broke up.

What happens if an agreement can’t be reached?
If this doesn’t get resolved, then we will be looking at a directors’ strike and a screen actors’ strike, and then the whole industry will shut down.

What impact will the strike have on the motion picture industry?

Essentially, every studio stockpiles some stuff, so if the strike is short, it won’t be a big deal. The problem arises when films that are currently in production need rewrites or revisions.

Will reality shows profit from the strike?

Probably, because reality shows aren’t covered by the Writers Guild. But like everything else, there’s a limit to how much reality programming audiences can stomach, and if that’s all there is on TV, there may be a bit of a backlash.

How did Hollywood resolve the last writers strike?

They compromised. Both sides moved halfway.  

Do you anticipate any plunge in network and cable ratings?

There will most likely be a huge fallout in the late-night ratings, because who wants to watch reruns of Late Night with David Letterman or The Daily Show?

What can screenwriting students learn from this?
I think people need to be better educated on what’s going on in the industry. Times are changing rapidly, and you have things like YouTube, which has an enormous amount of content, most of it coming from nonprofessionals. And I think, in a sense, the traditional world where professional writers control the writing and were compensated is breaking down. There’s a certain amount of fear and uncertainty throughout the whole industry as to where things are going. And that’s another reason why I think the writers, even though they didn’t want to do it, felt that they had to, so to speak, draw a line in the sand. All of a sudden content that was protected has lost its protection, and it’s an enormous quandary not just for the writers, directors, and screen actors, but also for the producers and production companies. How do they maintain their control over their own product? It’s a big deal, and I’m not sure where it’s all going to go.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.