Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Witching Hour Approaches

There's a deadline looming for Hollywood.

On October 31, the three-year contract between the studios and the writers expires. Then, next year, the contract between the studios and actors and directors also runs out.

According to the Associated Press, "Both the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and Screen Actors Guild elected new leaders after the current contracts were signed who have promised to get tougher with studios."

One sign of that toughness was the WGA's refusal to yield to the studios' request to start talks at the start of this year in January. The WGA refused to meet until July--three months before the end of the contract.

As a result, the studios are taking defensive action. They are speeding up production on television programs and movies and also looking for unscripted programs (like reality and game shows) that don't require writers.

By stockpiling shows, the studios hope to innoculate themselves against the possibility of a writers' strike.

"The last time writers struck was in 1988, a bitter five-month walkout. In 2001, studios also stockpiled scripts and accelerated production in anticipation of a strike."

NBC's Las Vegas started shooting three months early, hoping to get as many as 24 episodes filmed before the end of the contract. This would be three times the number of episodes the show would normally expect to have completed by October 31.

Part of the problem is the feeling that writers have that they have been cut out of profits from emerging technologies--"how much TV and film writers should be paid when their work is distributed on new media platforms, including the Internet, cell phones, digital media players and other devices. The writers argue the payments--modeled after the structures used for DVD rights--are too low."

Steve Bochco--creator of NYPD Blue--believes the writers and actors' guilds feel they got the short end of the stick in their contracts when it came to new technologies.

Like publishing houses, most studios are now owned by mega-corporations with deep pockets. These conglomerates can hold out longer in a strike than the studios of old.

However, at a time when viewers are deserting network television, neither side wants to risk losing loyal viewers by a prolonged strike that could antagonize fans.

There's a lesson here for all writers. What does your contract say with respect to video and audio rights? How about when the rights revert back to you? Do you have language that sets specific benchmarks for the revision of those rights?

My agent paid particular attention to these matters.

Don't accept the argument that "this is a standard contract." Everything is subject to negotiation. EVERYTHING.

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