Isn’t it interesting that in almost every endeavor in which a writer participates, be it books, essays or plays in the theatre, the writer is the one who owns his own words, the owner of his own copyright. I said almost because this is not so in movies and television. When a writer works in those media he is an author for hire and the studio and/or producer owns his creative output.
The theatre model never really took off in Hollywood's early days and was adamantly opposed by its then-moguls. Attempts to organize writers in the 1930s and 1940s were branded as Communistic by the Hollywood establishment, looking to cash in on the greatly shameful Red scare tactics that were brewing in our country.
Sean Mitchell, of the LA Times, recently wrote:
“…as if unions and the whole idea of collective bargaining were anathema to the American way of life…that having all those writers working under one banner would mean the creation of ‘a writers soviet’“.
Unfortunately, in 1942 when the Writers Guild was founded, the prevailing contract did indeed note the studio as author, with the screenwriter seen as selling a service.
Now, of course, as anyone who sits down to understand the Hollywood hierarchy or any other creative hierarchy will quickly come to understand, there is nothing without the words on the page. The words stem from the imagination of the creator and make it possible to proceed to the next step whether it be a book, play, television series or movie. No producer or director is responsible for the germination of the idea, nor the intricate workings that emanate from that idea on its way to becoming a dramatic work. Hollywood’s strange altar of worship makes sure we remember the director while the actual author of the work floats in the ether of obscurity. Here’s Sean Mitchell again:
“Everbody knows that Steven Spielberg directed E.T….but how many of us can name its screenwriter, Melissa Mathison?”
Sure, many screenwriters are highly paid for their work, but since it is indeed their work that ultimately decides a project’s success, why shouldn’t they share in the sale of DVDs and subsequent broadcasts and other uses of their work, when said uses are reaping huge profits for the studios? DVD sales and international distribution far eclipse the highly trumped domestic grosses that appear every Monday morning, turning the entertainment sections of our newspapers into vulgar scorecards. David Mamet has written that the dirty, little secret of Hollywood is that every movie makes money, regardless of the studios crying “poorhouse” after the disappointing opening of their current darling.
Yet, the studios whose combined operating income grew from $8 billion in 2000 to $18 billion in 2006, pay 50 cents to manufacture the actual DVD package while the residual payments to the writers, director and actors combined equal about 20 cents.
The studios need to take a long look at how they treat their customers and their artists lest they end up in the dustbin of history along with the record companies.