PENCILS DOWN! THE 100 DAYS OF THE WRITERS GUILD STRIKE (2016, doc)


pencils-down Greetings again from the darkness. This documentary from director Brian S. Kalata (a successful Location Manager) details the 100 day strike of the Writers Guild of America, and more interestingly, provides a peek behind the curtain of the business side of the entertainment industry. It’s an industry that continually cries financial wolf, while green-lighting the construction of new theatres and producing ever-bigger budget projects. Though this documentary won’t clear up any of the voodoo economics (to borrow a phrase), it does shed some light on who the power players are and who are the ones typically drawing the short straw.

On November 9, 2007, 4000 picketers joined the rally outside the Fox Studios as the WGA strike began. Numerous interviews with industry insiders provide us a basic education on what makes the entertainment world unique when it comes to labor disputes. Here, the leading studios … competitors, mind you … bond together to go up against each of the separate unions (DGA, SAG, WGA, Teamsters, etc) at contract time. Historically, this has resulted in contracts that heavily favor and maintain the largest piece of the pie for the power studios – now run by major media conglomerates, rather than the hands-on studio heads of early Hollywood (Mayer, Warner, et al).

What made this particular strike more interesting was the strong support the WGA received from its members – both past and present, the acting community (SAG), and the viewing public, thanks to an online media blitz telling the story. At the heart of the negotiations was this (at the time) new and rapidly expanding digital media. The studios claimed they didn’t have a business model yet for streaming, iTunes, Netflix, etc, so this was all to be categorized as “home video”, which short-changed the writers from previous contracts.

Those being interviewed include Alan Rosenberg, Harlan Ellison, Howard Rodman and Patric Verrone … all key players in the strike and the vision for the WGA. Each is very forthright in the past shortcomings of contract negotiations, as well as how they felt this strike offered the first real opportunity for fairness.

Labor issues are commonplace in most industries, but the fascination here is derived from the creative artists going up against powerful corporate forces. Even with a show of solidarity between the various entertainment unions, the cause is severely impacted when the DGA cuts their own deal. The film acts as a primer on both entertainment economics and labor relations … two topics we rarely have much access to, though we only get the labor (writers) side of the story.

The film trudges through the different stages of the 100 days, and makes it clear that the WGA felt back-stabbed by the DGA at a time when the industry was in danger of having its most important event canceled … Oscar night. In the end, the writers got their “toe in the door” for digital media, but Julia-Louis Dreyfus said it best … “Without the writers, we are speechless.”

 

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