Artists of the Year

The Writers Guild of America

The Writers Guild of America

By Max Sparber

At the time of this writing, it is six weeks into the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, and it's quite a brawl. On its website, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is keeping a running tally of how much the strike is costing writers, and how much it's costing other union members, in an unsubtle effort to drive a wedge between unions. The studios, meanwhile, are running out of canned episodes and are looking at a bleak spring season. It's an expensive game of chicken, as strikes always are, but few rack up this sort of price tag. The last strike, in 1998, cost the industry an estimated $500 million. The current strike may be costing more than $21 million a day, according to the L.A. Times. There may not even be a Golden Globe awards show this year; it will certainly be unscripted, and writers may not show even to accept awards.

The most interesting, and important, issue on the table is digital rights. It's important because it is the first major labor dispute over internet content. Writers are largely striking for residuals from downloadable and streaming digital distribution of their work. The dispute is a recognition that the internet may have as transformative an effect of film and television as it already has on music and publishing.

But it's also important because it demonstrates just how savvy Hollywood writers are about using the internet as a means of communication. Since the start of the strike, the web has been flooded with satiric web pages, YouTube videos, and writers' blogs presenting the writers' side of the strike. (Two of the best are Fred Armisen's recurring portrayal of the blissfully vicious studio head Roger A. Trevanti, and the studio heads of the fictional MegaPictures BFD, who occasionally show up to plead with the writers to accept the AMPTP's offers, which come with a full page of coupons.) As the strike plays out, many writers are starting to look to the web as an alternative to the studios, and are in negotiations to script web-only productions. In the past few years, there has been a constant flow of talent to the web from publishing and music; this strike could create a similar moment for Hollywood writers, who may turn to the web in droves. As this past six weeks have shown, they already have a talent for it.

Max Sparber is a playwright and arts journalist in Minneapolis. He is the editor of MNSpeak.com, on online forum for Twin Cities news, arts, and politics.

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