by Ben Walters
From Film Quarterly Spring 2008, Vol. 61, No. 3
On 31 October 2007 the standing arrangement between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expired. Under that agreement, WGA members received 0.3% of gross DVD sales; the guild demanded that this share increase to 2.5%, while also being extended to digitally transmitted media. The AMPTP countered with the old terms for DVDs and paid downloads, but nothing for streaming video, which it called “promotional.” On 5 November, the WGA went on strike. At the time of filing (15 January 2008), the dispute continues.
The AMPTP has suggested that it is too early to judge the effectiveness of digital platforms. The writers disagree and have underscored the point by utilizing online video in strikingly effective ways to further the action. On the first day of the strike, the WGA posted “Why We Fight,” a lively four-minute précis of its case, on YouTube, and there you can also find video footage of picket-line action, including speeches and testimonials from showrunners such as Seth MacFarlane and staffers. In “The Office is Closed,” for instance, writers from the NBC sitcom report receiving no payment for ten “webisodes” that were shown with commercials and won an Emmy award.
Writers have been ingenious and creative in generating online content. Uploaded on 13 November, “Not The Daily Show, With Some Writer” featured a report of the type normally delivered on the show by Jon Stewart, but in this case recorded by a writer at a desk in front of the New York picket lines. The piece suggests a discrepancy between the negotiating position of Viacom—parent company of Comedy Central, on which The Daily Show is aired—and its billiondollar lawsuit against Google and YouTube for copyright in-fringment: why sue if there are no significant profits at issue? (The Google/YouTube suit is also the subject of an entertainingly self-reflexive Daily Show segment, viewable at “Viacom Vs. YouTube.”) Other persuasive bits of agitprop include “Voices of Uncertainty” and “Rupert Murdoch and the Holy Grail,” which locate similar contradictions in archive news material of Disney, Viacom, NBC, CBS and Fox bosses. “Who Are They Lying To?” zeroes in with zeal on the different accounts of online revenue streams given by studios to stockholders and union members.
A whole mini-genre of satirical what-no-writers? clips ranges from shots of a kid in front of a blank TV to more or less witty re-imaginings of classic scripted moments. “WGA GALAXY” redoes the opening scrawl of Star Wars in stumbling teenspeak while “A World Without Writers” offers banal reworkings of iconic lines from the likes of On The Waterfront (“I coulda been a really really good boxer”), Gone with the Wind (“Whatever, Scarlett”), and Citizen Kane (“My sled!”). At unitedhollywood.com—a hub for the activism of the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), many of whom are striking in solidarity—you can see an impressive spoof procedural, “Murder Unscripted,” with Eric Bogosian, Chris Noth, and other familiar faces mooching around a crime scene without much to say or do. There is also material on aworkingwriter.com and strikelife.net, set up by Christopher Nolan (a WGA member as well as a director).
Perhaps the best-known online videos are found in the “Speechless Hollywood” series, in which prominent SAG members perform in black-and-white shorts featuring minimal dialogue. The more imaginative of the thirty videos uploaded so far include Patricia Clarkson and Amy Ryan proving that it really is possible to read the phone book with emotion (‘Episode 16: 11/29’) and Alan Cumming rendered speechless by an imaginary booking-line litany of theatrical spin-offs of reality TV shows: “for America’s Top Model: The Movie Part IV, press five!” (“Episode 18: 12/4”). There are also more than a few exchanges featuring actors talking gibberish, and some prolonged, po-faced poses which—as Jon Stewart suggested when The Daily Show returned to air without writers on 7 January—seem more apt to an HIV prevention campaign than industrial action.
Some of the supposedly comedic videos tend towards the self-pitying as well: in “Strike You! (A writers strike satire),” a WGA member endures a day of abuse from friends, actors, producers, and even his mother. (The talkback responses suggest that it at least resonates with other WGA members.) More effective is the self-mocking approach of “The Strike, Your Marriage and You.” “Hi,” it opens, “I’m Bob Kushell, a striking comedy writer out here in Los Angeles, California. If you’re anything like me, you’re tired of all these comedy writers putting videos on YouTube to show how clever they are. I mean, seriously, guys, pencils down means pencils down!” Even cleverer is “The Strike, Your Marriage and You: ‘The Healing,’” a follow-up-cum-making-of which includes a parody of David O. Russell’s tantrum on the set of I Heart Huckabees (a viral video hit—see “I Don’t Heart Huckabees”).
Strike-breaking is broached in “WGA Strike gets violent!” A coffee shop becomes a speakeasy in which writers conceal their laptops and index cards to avoid the attention of the Writers Guild Police. A more blatantly satirical take is “Alex Perez: Scab Writer—Promo 1—Hi Hollywood.” Uploaded even before the strike began, this is the first of a series of deliberately cloying shorts in which a supposedly proud scab lays out his wares for the studios to pick at. Predictably, it’s far harder to find videos from real-life strikebreakers. In fact, there’s surprisingly little content of any kind in support of the AMPTP. Videos apparently posted by producers are swiftly revealed as spoofs: “Studio Boss Roger A. Trevanti at the NY Picket Lines” offers some Sacha Baron Cohen-style situationism (Tony Kushner doesn’t know quite what to make of this concocted executive), while “Video-logblog: Writers Strike (Colbert Report writers)” sees another cod exec bewailing the AMPTP’s lot in the style of Chris Crocker, an overwrought online champion of Britney Spears.
“Frog on the Writer’s Strike,” on the other hand, offers a heartfelt, vitriolic, and foul-mouthed attack on the WGA through the animated, French-accented mouth of a Lego figure—a regular character in War Dawgz, an online series whose makers have launched a libertarian “Fuck the Writers Campaign.” It’s a venomous, incoherent rant, but it highlights the fact that it was amateur writers who pioneered online content. Other such content-producers have also engaged with the strike as subject matter, albeit more sympathetically, including Zoomilk (“Stop The Hollywood Writers Strike Now!”) and Ask A Ninja (“Ask A Ninja Special Delivery 17 ‘Writer’s Strike’”). Although not hostile to the WGA, Zanzibar19’s “Writers’ Strike? YouTube to the Rescue!” is scathing about the quality of much mainstream content, offering to send viewers “a long list of all the independently-produced entertainment on the web you will ever need.”
One consequence of the strike, however it is resolved, will likely be that the development of autonomous online entertainment programming is accelerated. The MySpace channel Strike TV was created in December as a fundraising venture under union oversight. Dedicated to creating original writer-owned content to screen on unitedhollywood.com, it has an explicit aim of long-term financial viability. It also claims to have recruited “a great many WGA members—showrunners, staff writers, screenwriters, you name it” and (if visible profiles are to be believed) counts Jon Favreau, Zach Braff, and Flight of the Conchords among its MySpace friends. The writers insist that online content is sustainable and profitable. The studios must choose whether to concede the point or risk having it proved at their expense—even, in the long run, at the expense of the entertainment sovereignty of television.
BEN WALTERS is a contributor to Time Out London and Sight and Sound, and the author of Orson Welles (Haus Publishing, 2004)