In the immediate aftermath of the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, the unfailingly myopic New York Times directed its geriatric Grey Lady gaze on the subject of the action’s future consequences, suggesting that writers’ earnings from future New Media and web-based residuals would be too minimal to justify their 100-day walkout. 1 However, as the Guild itself has documented, total member royalties from web-based ventures, namely from TV shows and movies enjoying a second life through Internet streaming, rose from a paltry $11,000 in 2007 to $11.26 million by 2012. 2 And with the landmark recent FCC ruling to retain an open, competitive Internet in the face of corporate conglomerate opposition, WGA members for their trouble can expect even more residual-based financial gains from web-based media in the coming years.
The Times did, however, correctly point out what would not have been news to anyone with even a tenuous grasp of the WGA’s collective bargaining history: taking temporary financial hits in the hopes of reaping future benefits has been a characteristic of every collective bargaining action by the WGA since its inception. And according to Emerson College media studies professor Miranda J. Banks’s history of the Writer’s Guild of America – the only history of its kind to date – the Guild’s continued viability over the years has been driven by selfless acts of trans-generational sacrifice. Basically, it is on the shoulders of the older generation of guild members to make difficult financial and creative compromises to secure fairer future compensation for the younger generation.
But this is an oral history as much as anything, and Banks’ 80-year investigative sweep of the screenwriters and their guild also “mines the collective experiences of writers as media practitioners and tracks the conditions of their creative labor.” (p. 2) It also incorporates over two hundred oral mini-histories from Hollywood scribes over the years, although some of these interviews are more ornamental than fundamental in their relationship to the fact-based heart of the study: insider commentaries stem from such WGA royalty as Ring Lardner Jr., Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Frank Pierson, Norman Lear, and plenty of scribes whose names are nowhere near as identifiable as the TV shows or movies they worked on.
Originally formed in 1933 as the Screen Writers Guild (SWG), it wasn’t until 1942 that the Guild would secure an acceptable long-term deal with the major studios. Questions of minimum compensation, copyrights, authorial credits, and ownership had been largely settled by their first contract. And one of the first and most controversial assets screenwriters were forced to bargain away was ownership of their material: once they sold a script to television or film, any authorial control over its content was ceded to the studio. But in return for this status as an “employee” (rather than an independent contractor or “artist”), the Guild members were promised decent pay, a pension, and healthcare benefits, among other notable perquisites.
In charting the development of the labour conditions of WGA members, Banks doesn’t bother rolling out any sort of cumbersome thesis: for better or worse, her presentation of factual research and oral histories is too neutral and unobtrusive for such tunnelled focus. Instead, Banks organises her research in a more chronological fashion, marking “key moments” that set off “monumental shifts in the profession” (p. 2) and from there she further identifies the same recurring concerns that define each of these eras: for Banks, the transformative milestones in the history of the guild most worthy of comment are the formation of the guild itself in 1933, the era of the blacklist, the rise of television and related strike action in 1960, the proliferation of “hyphenate” roles in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 2007-2008 writers strike. From the very beginning, the issues of “shifting definitions of ownership and authorship, the meaning of a writer’s name on a screen credit, and the perception of writers being outsiders within their own professional communities” (p. 12) would always be among the WGA’s major sticking points no matter the time period in question.
Even though the general tenor of the study is, inevitably, one of tribute – Banks tends to perpetuate the notion of the screenwriter as noble artisan underdog pitted against creativity-killing corporate bean-counter adversaries – she does confront the history of WGA failures to some degree. The most obvious example of this failure would be the guild’s collective inability to protect some of its members from being blacklisted by America’s own Stalinist purges, the McCarthy-led House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in the early 1950s. As a result, in 1954 the Television Writers Association would merge with the SWG in a gathering of protective force under the multimedia aegis of the Writer’s Guild of America.
With the inclusion of TV scribes and the increasing dominance of their medium, the power structure of the Guild began to immediately shift in their favour. And once the WGA was officially recognized, the forces of both TV and film writers now joined, their members’ political leanings would be sheepishly de-emphasised in order to shed the “communist” reputation the Screenwriters Guild had unfairly acquired during the McCarthy witch hunts; however, an initial collective bonhomie would soon give way to ongoing internal conflicts, which usually meant East vs. West branches being at almost constant loggerheads, and for years the regional differences would intermittently threaten the WGA’s effectiveness as a bargaining entity.
Issues of writers’ self-identification would also come into play in discussions of the troublesome “hyphenate” members (i.e. dual-role writer-producers) of the Guild who during a walkout would identify themselves as writers but would still cross picket lines to work as producers. This seemingly traitorous behaviour threatened Guild unity in times of strike action and even provoked the Guild’s higher-ups, ironically, to implement its own blacklisting system for strike-breaking hyphenates. And although it was presumably necessary to cover in some depth the years of squabbling among WGA elites over “possessory credits”, the prevalence of intra-guild (i.e. writer vs. director) bickering over this anti-collective vanity credit actually had no relation to copyright, ownership or financial gain, only the right to have one’s name attached to the film’s advertising campaign (e.g. “Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds”). Eventually, after almost 40 years, the possessory credit was declared a non-issue – and just another needless identity-related point of contention between already warring factions within the guild.
From the WGA’s early beginnings, the question of residual entitlements for both film and TV writers would be behind just about every major strike action of the WGA: from the mildly successful 1959-1960 strike over residual and royalty payments from TV re-runs and film-to-TV rights, to less-than-successful strikes in the 1980s over videocassette and cable shares, to the 2007-2008 collective grab for future dividends from online media. Banks duly notes the mobilising impact on the WGA of major technological innovations in entertainment media, whether it be the advent of sound film, television, cable TV, videocassettes, DVDs, or today’s rapidly metastasising online realm of streaming media.
The 1980s, for example, were a low point for the WGA, and Banks’ coverage of the dismal state of WGA strike actions in the 1980s is refreshingly free of rose-coloured historical revisionism; however, it is difficult to get a sense of the long-term implications of the studios’ cold retributive actions over the protracted writers walkouts. The vast stretches of dry facts in this particular section could have been livened up significantly had there been some discussion of how the writers strikes were viewed in broader mass-cultural terms at the time, not to mention how entertainment content itself was affected (see, for example, all the strike themes and references in the content of then-popular TV shows like The Simpsons and Moonlighting). Moreover, this is the period when the studios’ reactionary “writer proof” reality TV shows began to take off (think COPS, and America’s Most Wanted, for starters), while writer-driven American TV soap operas suddenly fell into steep decline 3, all of which would mean fewer opportunities for WGA members in the future.
It is no surprise that the watershed 2007-2008 writers strike draws the lion’s share of Banks’ attention, as it was the first largely effective collective bargaining action by the WGA in at least two decades. This strike was the first in which East and West WGA branches had ever been in true solidarity during a labour dispute. Banks also attributes the strike’s effectiveness to better organisation and image control via previously unavailable tools of social media: “The WGA realized that part of this message war was about winning the support of the general public. And unsurprisingly, entertainment writers knew just how to tell their story.” (p. 224) The WGA writers, in the end, managed to strike an acceptable deal with the studios: one that would lead to their fair share of revenues from the exploding online streaming phenomenon that was quickly replacing the DVD as the most popular format of cultural content delivery.
Yet Banks’ seemingly comprehensive study of the 2007-2008 strike is just as notable for potentially important omissions. There are no statistics or figures given in this final chapter that give a concrete sense of what striking writers gained in actual financial terms from their efforts. And there is a rather deafening silence on the secretive “scab trials” that were held by the WGA leaders to condemn writers found guilty of crossing the picket lines. These trials were, among other things, a disturbing flashback to the bad old days of McCarthyism in the 1950s. 4 What is more, there is no specific mention of the billion-dollar ripple effects of these writers strikes on the California economy as a whole, nor any regard for the damaging economic impact on the independently contracted careers of the entertainment industry’s real underdogs: the “below the line” key grips, caterers, hair stylists, props people, sound engineers, construction crews, among many others, who all were laid off as a result of the writer’s strike. 5
But Banks does ably round out the rest of the WGA’s overarching historical narrative with rightful attentiveness to the damaging macrocosmic effects of certain shifts in the American political landscape: namely, the Reagan and Clinton administrations overseeing the industry deregulation and increasing corporate dominance that continues to adversely affect WGA members to this day. Banks brings some scholarly authority to the often glossed-over and under-reported topic of US media consolidation, and the manner in which the Clinton-sponsored 1996 Telecommunications Act was the most overt political gesture toward quietly deregulating the industry, as media conglomerates began seriously marginalising the middle-class writer and distancing themselves from the influence of independent producers and outsider ideas in Hollywood – all while cynically co-opting “indie” style into existing mainstream corporate structures.
The book’s shortcomings, however, tend to be forgivable in light of the fact that The Writers does fill a yawning gap in the film and media studies canon. This is a relentlessly scholarly and disciplined factual treatment of the politics and business of screenwriting and a long overdue acknowledgment of the unsung artistic and activist contributions of “entertainment’s most replaceable but ultimately indispensable artists” (p.1), the screenwriters themselves.
Miranda J. Banks, The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and their Guild (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
- David Carr, “Who Won the Writers’ Strike?” New York Times, February 12, 2008. ↩
- David Robb, “Why the Writer’s Guild Won’t Strike This Time.” Deadline.com. March 28, 2014. ↩
- http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TVStrikes ↩
- Robb, “Why the Writer’s Guild Won’t Strike This Time.” ↩
- Alexander Dale, “A Grip’s View of the Strike.” Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2007. ↩