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Monday, November 5, 2007

Joan Didion: “Writers have never been much admired in Hollywood…”

posted by on November 5 at 14:27 PM

Does anyone in Seattle care about the writer’s strike that started today in Hollywood? According to the L.A. Times (same story Brad linked to in the morning news): “Both sides are girding for what many believe will be a long and debilitating strike, potentially more disruptive than the 22-week walkout by writers in 1988, which cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million.” I just asked the people at the table next to me at Cafe Presse if they cared about the strike and the question barely registered. (Hey, Mudede, you’re a “Hollywood writer”—do you care?)

I only care because that mention of the 1988 strike is a perfect excuse to put up a Slog post directing you toward this excellent and often overlooked Joan Didion book—really, get yourself a copy, it’s $11!—which has, in addition to the best essays ever written about the Central Park jogger and Patty Hearst, an essay called “Los Angeles Days,” about earthquakes, Aaron Spelling’s mansion, and the writers’ strike of 1988. (You can also find “Los Angeles Days” in the Everyman’s Library collection of all of Didion’s nonfiction, published last year, with it’s too-small type and Bible-thin pages.)

A couple quotes from “Los Angeles Days”—which don’t do it justice, you have to read them in context. But here’s a taste:

Writers have never been much admired in Hollywood. In an industry predicated on social fluidity, on the daily recalibration and reassessment of status and power, screenwriters, who perform a function that remains only dimly understood even by the people who hire them, occupy a notably static place: even the most successful of them have no real power, and therefore no real status.


I heard repeatedly during the strike that I, as a member of the Guild “but an intelligent person,” had surely failed to understand what “the leadership” of the Guild was doing to me; when I said that I did understand it, that I had lost three pictures during the course of the strike and would continue to vote against a settlement until certain money issues had been resolved, I was advised that such intransigence would lead nowhere, because “the producers won’t budge,” because “they’re united on this,” because “they’re just going to write off the Guild,” and because, an antic note, “they’re going to start hiring college kids—they’re even going to start hiring journalists.”

It’s a long, sharp, fantastic piece, and it ends with an anecdote about going to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in July of 1988—only then, Didion writes, “did the emotional core of the strike come clear to me.” She goes on:

I had gone to Atlanta in an extra-industry role, that of “reporter” (or, as we say in Hollywood, “journalist”), with credentials that gave me a seat in the Omni but access to only a rotating pass to go on the floor. I was waiting for this rotating pass one evening when I ran into a directior I knew, Paul Mazursky. We talked for a moment, and I noticed that he, like all the other industry people I saw in Atlanta, had a top pass, one of the several all-access passes. In this case it was a floor pass, and, since I was working and he seemed not about to go on the floor, I asked if I might borrow it for half an hour.

He considered this.

He would, he said, “really like” to do this for me, but thought not. He seemed surprised that I had asked, and uncomfortable that I had breached the natural order of the community as we both knew it: directors and actors and producers, I should have understood, have floor passes. Writers do not, which is why they strike.

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I care! I'm going to miss new Colbert and Stewart, but the strike is something that I think is necessary at this point.

Posted by Me | November 5, 2007 2:34 PM

As long as Battlestar Galactica doesn't get cut off at the knees, I'm ok with it.

Posted by laterite | November 5, 2007 2:41 PM

I'm excited for television to go down in flames. The networks never recovered from the flood of reality television that went into production last time the writers threatened to strike, which might be evidence that people just don't care about writing.

The most well written network shows in the last ten years have been extremely short lived. If Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks can't get ratings, then I'm guessing network execs probably realize that Americans are just as happy to watch obese people go on diets (as entertainment!) as anything and are willing to drag this out a long time.

Posted by Dougsf | November 5, 2007 2:43 PM

The L.A. Times is, and is not, blowing this out of proportion. This is between the writers and studio heads. They care because we're being inched out, once again, from the $$$. Writers already have to deal with % loss from a number of steps in the CC process that they never fucking asked for (ex. SD's, et. al.).

Now that the download dilemma is growing in Hollywood, $$$ cuts on budget has been accelerated, and writers are somehow, once again, at the bottom of the money-chain. They like the work, they ask us to change the work, they change it without asking us, and cut %'s of our pay for those they've hired to fuck with it. Then we get angry, because we're basically littering with our name on it, since it's no longer the story we created because some fuckhead was hired to make it 'more appealing for a larger audience' etc, etc...we go through enough as it is. Then our fucked-with screenplay is made into a total box office bomb, and they turn their heads and say, "Well gee Wally, I thought the test-screeners liked it durrrrr."

It's total FOX shit running Hollywood right now. We've sick of it. Audiences are sick of it. And poor teenagers who have to download rated R movies, only to waste that precious time downloading to conclude with a 1-1/2-2 hour session of cud, well...they have to deal with it, too.

Posted by slog obsessed screenwriter | November 5, 2007 2:43 PM

Excuse typos, please. Kind of angry, and busy.

Posted by slog obsessed screenwriter | November 5, 2007 2:47 PM

RE: late night TV

These guys are supposed to be comedians..SHOCKER, WRITE YOUR OWN JOKES!

Then let a celeb push their new project, annnd the end


Posted by Lake | November 5, 2007 2:48 PM

Meh. I've got enough books to wait it out.

Posted by Greg | November 5, 2007 2:49 PM

Of course. The WGA strike will have a direct impact on members of the union I represent (AFTRA) at a national level, since a significant number of both network and cable dramatic series are under our contracts.

Locally, it won't have much impact, since there are very few, if any, shows here using WGA represented writers. But what people have to be made aware of is the fact that this is only the opening salvo in what might become a protracted war between performers unions and the media conglomerates; both the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) and AFTRA have a Network contract up for renegotiation next spring, and I believe IATSE (the stagehands' union representing both TV/film technical production crews and legit theatre stage crews) are already in the midst of negotiating with Broadway producers for a new contract. So, what happens vis-a-vis the WGA action now could have much wider implications to the entire industry in the next several months.

In the meantime, if this goes more than a few weeks, expect to see a lot of absolute drek appear on your TV's as shows run out of useable scripts, and the nets are forced to run out unscripted "reality TV" series to fill the scheduling holes.

Posted by COMTE | November 5, 2007 2:51 PM

The question is whether there is a strike in Canada, where they film a lot of series.

Is there? Or does the WGA have work going on there and just not in the US?

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 5, 2007 2:55 PM

Will the strike affect reality TV? Reality shows have even more writing work done on them than scripted shows, since they have to come up with the story line from pre-filmed bits.

Posted by Fnarf | November 5, 2007 3:00 PM

Yes Will, the WGA strike affects any U.S. produced broadcast or cable series or motion picture filmed in Canada, since all the writers for those are WGA members.

Posted by COMTE | November 5, 2007 3:08 PM

Fnarf, the WGA gave up on pulling "story editors" from reality shows into their fold. Read for details.

And for the record, I care -- not only as a big fan of scripted television (a sucky hour of HEROES is far better than a spectacular episode of THE HILLS), but as a writer/director myself with a stake in how this whole brawl shakes down.

Plus, one upside: studios went on a buying spree at the end of the last strike, gobbling up spec scripts like cocaine off hookers' tits. Get writing, kids... you could be the next Shane Black!

Posted by chrisdiani | November 5, 2007 3:10 PM

But what if it is something like Battlestar Galactica which has Canadian directors and producers and a Canadian shell company?

In other words, will this kill the shows I love (partially because I play Spot The Place I've Been) like BSG and Bionic Woman?

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 5, 2007 3:12 PM

a sucky hour of HEROES is far better than a spectacular episode of THE HILLS

Give it time...

Posted by The Baron | November 5, 2007 3:15 PM

Again Fnarf, the answer is "yes". However, during the '88 strike the Networks used "reality programming", primarily of the "COPS" variety, to get around the strikers, and that's pretty much going to be the tactic this time around as well.

Most so-called "reality series" aren't currently covered under WGA contracts, so they're not going to be adversely affected by the walk-out. Plus, they have very quick production turn-arounds, and can literally go from concept to production in a matter of months, if not weeks, and they're incredibly cheap to produce, which means studios and nets have a chance to recoup at least some of the revenue they'll lose if the strike drags on more than a few weeks.

The risk of course is that, as opposed to the 1988 strike, viewers today have far more choices in terms of available product to watch. So the question this time is, will they just switch to other forms of entertainment, like DVD's, downloads, et al, instead of watching whatever quick-and-dirty or dumbed-down programming gets tossed on-air to fill the schedules?

And this doesn't even take into consideration the inevitable backlash from viewers if hit series' season story arcs get interupted for a prolonged period.

Posted by COMTE | November 5, 2007 3:20 PM

So, um...

With the writers on strike, does that mean the Fox News Channel will be showing "news" reruns?

Posted by Packratt | November 5, 2007 3:25 PM

Sorry Will, but those series are all produced by American media companies, and aired on American broadcast and cable networks. They're American shows, and all under WGA jurisdiction.

If it's not originally produced for and aired on a Canadian net such as CBC, CTV, TVA or TVOntario, it's not a "Canadian series", irrespective of whether it's actually shot in Canada.

Posted by COMTE | November 5, 2007 3:27 PM


#2. Absolutely not. RDM promised to finish BSG after the strike. Check the forums.

#13. NBC's hanging on to BW and it will continue after the strike is resolved.

(I have a vested interest in both as a fan of Mark Sheppard).

Posted by Max Bell | November 5, 2007 3:27 PM

Ah! The perfect opportunity to watch more UK shows! Pretty much all of which can be found online... personally, I'd like to recommend Torchwood, Doctor Who, and QI.

Honestly, at this point, I don't even watch TV - on TV. I pull down shows that I like and watch them on my own time. It's excellent for ones like Doctor Who, that keep doing 2- and 3-part episodes.

I wonder if the shorter seasons over there have something to do with what seems to be an overall higher quality of show - doing 12-13 shows a season seems like it would encourage more attention than the 20+ monsters we get over here.

Posted by wench | November 5, 2007 3:45 PM

I had a couple aspiring screenwriter friends in college. They were under the impression that, while writers are at the bottom of the food chain, they don't get blamed when something they write flops at the box office. So, despite the lack of creative control, I'm not weeping for screenwriters.

Posted by keshmeshi | November 5, 2007 4:02 PM

Everyone should absolutely watch Torchwood!

I just finished series one (as they say in the UK), and it totally rulz. Aside from some gore, it's almost too beautiful and poetic for television today. It follows the same path as the X-Files, Buffy TVS, and Ultraviolet, but has more depth, romance and self-aware, sardonic wit.

My fave eps: "They Keep Killing Suzie" and "Out of Time."

It's showing on CBC (Ch. 99 in Seattle) on Friday nights.

Posted by Original Andrew | November 5, 2007 4:07 PM

@17 - ok, so Little Mosque on the Prairie and Torchwood and Couples for me then.


I do so love Torchwood.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 5, 2007 4:15 PM

Little Mosque on the Prairie! Yay!

Posted by Soupytwist | November 5, 2007 4:46 PM


The strike is almost perfectly about shows like Arrested Development and Freaks and Geeks--television shows, even when they perform poorly in first-run, oftentimes find an audience when sold in other platforms. Writers got the short end on DVD residuals, and part of this strike is to correct the imbalance and deal with compensation on downloaded content over the net.

Posted by Boomer in NYC | November 5, 2007 5:16 PM

#24. As a big fan of watching series when they come as DVD sets, but not a big fan of actually watching television, then I say GODSPEED to the writers.

Posted by Dougsf | November 5, 2007 6:30 PM

If this ruins my beloved 30 Rock, I'm crackin' skulls.

Posted by Jessica | November 5, 2007 7:41 PM

According to a story on this evening's All Things Considered, if the strike goes on for more than a month the average writer will lose more income than they would gain if the Guild gets all it asks for.

So assuming this is true (and it wouldn't surprise me, the cost-benefit analysis in many strikes is beyond screwy), which section of the guild is really pushing it?

Posted by gnossos | November 5, 2007 8:47 PM

I'm not privvy to the actual strike-vote count, but it does appear than an overwhelming majority of WGA members approved to authorize.

As for the cost-benefit analysis, it's generally the case that overall wages lost during a work stoppage will exceed the aggregate of the additional revenue that's being struck for. But, this is also a long-term issue for writers. If they can pressure producers to agree to the revised revenue structure for off-broadcast sales (DVD's, internet & personal media platforms, etc.) then they've set a precedent that will be followed in future contracts. That's a lot of what the current negotiations have revolved around.

As I believe a previous poster pointed out, writers got totally screwed over DVD sales formulas, and they want to ensure that doesn't happen again with the advent of new media platforms.

Posted by COMTE | November 5, 2007 9:08 PM

@18: I've heard that the BSG team wrote an additional draft of the 12th and 13th episodes as a series finale, in case the strike goes on too long and SciFi cancels the show. They were already planning on splitting the season about 6-7 months apart, and if the first half doesn't air until April or May, that puts part two practically into 2009. SciFi execs are not known for their patience or foresight, and this strike could be the justification they need to cancel the show early, especially if the initial ratings aren't promising.

Posted by laterite | November 5, 2007 10:55 PM
30 >american airline vacation

Posted by american airline travel | November 18, 2007 2:18 PM

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