Finally, it’s over. American film and television writers threw down their artfully-worded protest placards and went back to work yesterday as Guild members voted to approve a deal with the studios that officially brought the 100-day writers’ strike to an end.
The precise details of the new contract are breathtakingly dull, and it’s still yet to be officially ratified by Guild members, but the key provision is that in its third year, it will allow for writers to be paid a percentage of revenue derived from the internet and various other forms of new media.
This is a victory for the striking writers. The crux of their argument was always that they should be entitled to a share of the rapidly-expanding internet revenue pie. Giving them a percentage of that revenue through residual payments seems a fair way of balancing the writers’ demands with the studios’ argument that they have no way of knowing how much revenue online broadcasting will generate.
However, now that the strike’s out of the way, what sort of Hollywood are the writers coming back to? The first problem, for television writers especially, is trying to remember what plots they were working on when they walked out. But in the longer term, there has been a fair bit of talk that the studios, having taken a whopping financial hit, would regroup with a far more conservative, even hostile, approach to the development of new content.
That means more foreign imports and probably more reality. It also, and this is where it will sting, means decreased investment in expensive development. Studios, up until recently, produced somewhere around fifteen pilots a year. That meant work for the writers who write them, but more importantly, a lot of money sunk into their development – in some cases around $8 million over a couple of years to a writer and their team. There’s talk that the number of pilots might decrease dramatically to around five or six per studio, cutting the amount of work by about two-thirds, and that the rich development deals will dry up. Some of them already have.
The consequence of this is that writers and producers will be forced to bear their own costs, to work for nothing when developing new shows or screenplays. After the previous strike in 1988 the Hollywood film industry relied strongly on spec scripts – scripts written by screenwriters on their own time in the hope that a studio would pick them up. The writers whose scripts were bought did very well out of it, but no-one else did. But to the studios, it was a way to acquire good scripts without all the expensive overheads involved in their development.
The flipside of this, however, is that writers and producers with profile and/or talent may be able to bypass the studios and write and produce their own content to be broadcast directly to the viewer via the internet. Web drama Quarterlife is the most prominent example of a straight-to-audience production; its creators made the product first, then brought in NBC to produce, giving them far more power than they would have had under a traditional broadcast model.
So this story is not over yet. The effects of this strike may be felt in Hollywood for a long, long time. But one thing we can all be grateful for, blessing of blessings, is that the Oscars will go ahead. Because if there’s anything Hollywood needs, it’s more glittering self-congratulation.
Peter Mattessi is a Melbourne-based TV writer.