Monday, January 14, 2008

Orson Scott Card on the WGA strike.

Local author and WGA member Orson Scott Card devoted part of his "Uncle Orson Reviews Everything" column last week to the Writers Strike.

Here's most of what he had to say (WARNING: It's a long read, but a really good one because of its honesty):

Just like publishers, the studios always try to maximize their profits by cutting out the writers. Even though everyone in Hollywood knows – and repeatedly says – that you can't do anything on a movie till you have a good script, they continue to treat writers as if they were cockroaches that somehow got into the fruit salad.

Writers have long suffered from the constant irritation of directors who did not write the script being given the proprietary credit: "A film by ..." Unless the director also gets the sole writing credit, this statement is always a lie – but the studios seem to believe the French nonsense that the director is the author of the film. The proof that this is never true is a list of all the very bad films made by "great" directors who thought they could make up for the deficiencies in a bad script.

But the writers aren't striking about the insult of the proprietary credit. We're striking over the deep injury of being cut out of our fair share of DVD and internet sales. The studios think that our share is nothing. Their attitude is, "You got paid the first time around, what's your beef?"

Yes, the writer got paid. Let's say he got $300,000 for writing the script. In 1994. Now the movie is making hundreds of thousands in DVD sales, and the writer hasn't sold a script since 1998. Why should the studio continue to make money from his work, while the writer gets nothing? Isn't it still his script, his story, the words and actions he thought up, that are making all that money?

Writers get a lot of money per script. But before you dismiss us as a bunch of overpaid babies, please remember that we never know where the next check is coming from. Sell a script for $300,000 – and the film might never get made. You might not sell another script for 10 years. Suddenly that wasn't quite as much money as it sounded like at first.

The problem comes back to copyright. The studios require writers to sign work-for-hire contracts, which means that even though the writer invented everything in the script, the studio becomes the legal "author" of the movie.

I think this situation is immoral – though I've signed those contracts because there's no other choice. It's especially galling because the studios are now fighting to make copyright perpetual, so they can keep making money from long-dead writers' work – while paying nothing for the privilege.

Studios create nothing. They just decide which scripts to make and pay for them. This is all well and good in a capitalist society – but the copyright law is not a corporate welfare plan, it's a device to encourage creativity. The studios don't have any creativity – the writers do. So the law should be shaped to encourage writers, not the studios that steal from them.


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Bravo, Orson! If you click the test above, you'll find that he goes on to cover some things that the WGA is screwing up on their end, too.

I totally agree with Orson's concept of writer ownership. Sure, the studios should own the rights to the filmed product -- they are the ones who paid for the scripts to be produced, afterall. That said, writers deserve way more credit and control. They are the ones who make big-budgeted tent-pole films re-watchable, thus making them better financial investments by way of ensuring longevity in ancillary markets (i.e., DVD, direct downloads, etc.).

Sure, Spider-Man 3 made more money in theaters, but Spider-Man 2 sold way more DVD's. In fact, Spider-Man 2 did so good, that they made a second cut of the film, called Spider-Man 2.1, so they could sell it to people again. Sony can blame piracy all they want to, but the reason few people bought the Spider-Man 3 DVD is because, on the script level the movie sucked. It was a movie that was ruined by 'creative imput' by its many producers, all of whom blew up the budget to nearly $250 million on paychecks no doubt exponentially greater than what the writers made, and the end result is a movie most consumers never want to watch again. A total blight on the pop culture landscape, if you will.

Also, because writers have no ownership or control over their creations, they have no say whatsoever in terms of remakes and needless sequels. James Cameron whose first two Terminator films are among the top of the action genre, had no power to veto Terminator 3 from being made. The series and characters were the products of his imagination and hard work, but when it comes down to it, the man could not stop some jerk producer from spinning a third film, an entire planned sequel trilogy, and a TV show of all things out of the character and universe that by all natural rights should belong to him.

About the only filmmaker who doesn't have to put up with this treatment is George Lucas who owns the rights to all of his characters. Sure he might have used that power to oversaturate the marketplace with those horrible prequels and almost as bad TV programs, but at least he had the final say in regards to how his legacy would be forever tainted.

In actuality, the deal the WGA is trying to ratify with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is fairly meagre. They even gave up their bid for an increase on DVD residuals (read: $0.08 per copy sold instead of the current $0.04) in order to gain a small amount of points on streaming and downloaded media either created from or by their work. If the Alliance were smart, they would take the deal before the WGA starts requesting the ownership and control of what should belong to them naturally.

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