Thursday, December 27, 2007

Everybody out! Bob Mills in on!

Can TV shows get any cheaper than the hundreds of 'Top 100 ...' shows that seem to have infiltrated every channel? In the past few weeks we've seen Top 100 Comedy Acts, catchphrases, Christmas songs, worst dressed celebrities, gaffes and bloopers, TV animals ... the list goes on and on. It's just an excuse to cobble together a clip show of free stuff from the archives, record a few talking heads from C list celebrities (what does Bob Mills actually do, apart from these shows?) and sell it to us as nostalgia. And we eat it up. Well, I hope you like the taste because there may be a lot more shite like that coming your way ... especially if UK writers join their American comrades in taking strike action.

The writers' strike in America still holds firm and a good thing too. Writers have always been treated shoddily by the business. I remember reading William Goldman's excellent Adventures in the Screen Trade a few years ago and his annoyance that (not quoted verbatim here) if a film is a huge success, everyone heaps praise upon stars and directors and producers. But if the film is a dog, the first bitch is inevitably that 'it was a terrible script'. And when we think about classic lines in films from 'Here's lookin' at you kid' to 'I'll be back', the only person who gets the credit is the star. A writer put those words in the stars' mouths ... but the writer is paid a pittance by comparison and is rarely credited. Could you tell me who wrote the screenplay for Casablanca? Precisely.*

The strike is aimed at upsetting the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), an organisation representing the interests of American film and television producers. Over 12,000 writers have joined the strike which has now been running since the 5th of November and looks set to run on into the New Year. Every three years, the Writers Guilds negotiate a new basic contract with the AMPTP by which its members are employed. This contract is called the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA). This year's MBA negotiations broke down resulting in the strike. Among the bones of contention are several key issues. One is DVD residuals - the current system for allotting a writer a percentage of DVD sales is old and was rooted in the then 'untested' early 1980s market of VHS and Betamax video cassettes. With the huge rise in public consumption of DVDs, the writers feel (quite justifiably in my opinion) that they deserve more than just the 0.3% of the first million of reportable gross that they currently get. To put that into some perspective, the home video market is the major source of revenue for the movie studios. In April of 2004, the New York Times reported the companies made $4.8 billion in home video sales versus $1.78 billion at the box office between January and March (figures from Wikipedia).

There are other issues, such as better pay generally, and union jurisdiction over animation and reality program writers, but perhaps the biggest issue that this strike revolves around is so-called 'New Media' by which I mean content written for (or distributed through) emerging digital technology such as the Internet. With people's viewing habits in a state of evolution from tradition TV and film to new media like smartphones, hand-held digital media players and pay-per-view, the writers are asking that they are adequately compensated for the use of their creations. In the old days, you simply wrote a script, it was filmed, people paid to watch it and you got a cut. Now, that script can be a film shown in the cinema, on TV, on the internet, and streamed live to your phone. Sections can be chopped and used in music videos and soundbites used in the music itself. And, of course, they appear endlessly on TV 'Top 100 movie or TV moments' type clip shows.

So while you may be ranting about the fact that many US TV shows have halted mid-season (Like Heroes series 2 for example) and several films are stuck in pre-production Hell because of the strike, spare a thought for the writers who deserve better. A lot better. All they want, and deserve, is a fair slice of the pie. Just remember, if it weren't for them doing what they do so well, all we'd see on TV is reality shows and clip shows.

Oh, sod it. Top five comedy acts? (5) Eddie Izzard (4) Steve Martin (before he went rubbish) (3) Bill Bailey (2) Morecombe and Wise, and (1) Laurel and Hardy. No question.

* Casablanca had six writers in all. The basis for the film was the script of the stageplay 'Everybody comes to Rick's' by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The script was then turned into a screenplay by Julius J Epstein and Philip G Epstein, Howard Koch and the uncredited Casey Robinson. (Source: IMDB)


Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Stevyn,
I always loved Laurel & Hardy when I was a kid as the local TV stations would air their films. back then I didn't know much about them, but they are still one of my favorite comedy duos. In spite of the brash, lewd and often profane acts of today, Laurel & Hardy stand out for me because they were actually funny. Speaking of lewd, brash & sometimes profane...Monty Python comes in at number two for my favorite comedy team/troupe. Thanks for the informative post.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks Mr G - I'm a huge fan myself. Have a great Christmas and New Year (Oh, great blog yourself by the way!)