Bill Katz has held down jobs at several of America’s most interesting employers: the New York Times, the CIA, and the Tonight Show, for example. In his contribution today he reflects on the Hollywood writers’ strike. Among his previous related contributions are “Learning from the Tonight Show, part 1,” “Learning from the Tonight Show, part 2,” “Hollywood: Hurray for?,” and “Hollywood: Hurray for? The sequel.” Today he writes:
As you know, there’s a writers strike on against the film and television industries.
Full disclosure: I am, and have been for years, a member of the Writers Guild of America. I say that freely before this committee. No, no, wait. That’s for something else. I say that freely here at Power Line. We writers are on strike against the greedy capitalist warmongers and purveyors of celluloid slime. Oh, uh, wait again. Aren’t these the boys who financed all those anti-war films? Okay, we’re on strike against the greedy capitalists whose selfishness and depravity…Uh, okay, okay, I concede it — the most creative thing about these guys is their ability to lose money and give capitalism a bad name. All right, let’s settle on this: We’re on strike against the greedy incompetents. Can we all agree on that? Done.
A Hollywood strike is odd. Some wag once said that it’s the only labor action where strikers pull up to the picket line in Rolls Royces. (Well, that’s really not true. Most writers have modest incomes.) And the comments on a writers picket line tend to be more ironic than the “Shut ’em down!” we normally hear when the proletariat takes to the streets. I recall picketing the William Morris Agency some years ago. The writer ahead of me kept lamenting that this was a terrible way to meet girls.
Hollywood unions are strange amalgams of traditional labor unions and creative guilds, where some members are world famous and others are barely noticed. Some services they provide are unique to film and TV. The Writers Guild, for example, arbitrates between members who are in conflict over creative rights. It also assigns credits. When you see “created by” or “screenplay by” or “story by,” those credits are awarded by the Guild after careful study of the different contributions and claims of writers. It’s not the kind of thing you’ll find at the Teamsters local.
And it was a Hollywood union that produced a president of the United States. Ronald Reagan was head of the Screen Actors Guild, and was very well regarded for his union work. It was in that role, he famously said, that he learned to deal with Communists. But that, delicately, is another story.
So today the writers, whom Jack Warner once called “schmucks with Underwoods,” are walking the picket lines. Warner, one of the Warner brothers, was renowned for strolling the halls outside writers’ offices, listening for the clicks of typewriter keys to assure himself that work was being done. I don’t know how he’d handle schmucks with Macbooks, but he’d probably have them work in the halls so he could see the words come up on their screens. Let’s not forget, though, that Jack Warner made “Casablanca” and many other great films. Even moguls can have taste.
The strike is a serious business. You have a right to know that I support it. The Writers Guild is simply asking that the industry enter the 21st century, and share reasonably the returns from new technologies. I will support a union when I think it’s right, oppose it when I think it’s wrong. Without going into the statistical details, in this case the ayes have it.
But, you ask, why should anyone support writers when so many of the films are so rotten? Excellent point. But remember that, for all the bad, there’s also a “Titanic,” a “Saving Private Ryan,” a “Schindler’s List,” and, most recently and most beautifully, “The Kite Runner.” (If you haven’t seen it, you must.) There are fine scripts, with decent values, that go unproduced. It’s not the writers who approve the films that get made, it’s the people the writers are striking against. A few years ago a producer and I tried to sell the networks the story of a West Point cadet whose father, a fireman, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. It was a tale of service, courage, and family. Did we get to first base? We didn’t even get to the batter’s box. So please don’t always blame the writer.
That leaves the question: What kind of industry will writers return to when the strike ends? And there is the tragedy, the source of what’s gone wrong in today’s movies. The industry, what there is of it, is a mess. It isn’t the movie business any longer. It’s the business business. The movie or TV show is simply “product,” the result of a judgment made by a division of a conglomerate whose other units make jet engines or portable radios, or publish magazines, or run amusement parks.
The greatest complaint I hear from people in Hollywood is that most of their colleagues have little interest in their work, but are very interested in their pay packages. One friend, who was rising in the ranks, suddenly quit the business, explaining that “I got tired of working with people who see this as just a glamorous alternative to Wall Street.” I knew an agent, an Ivy Leaguer, who shrugged off my concern about quality with the comment, “It’s only the movies.” I was ready to remind her that this is our profession, that there’s nobility in good entertainment, but she had to rush off to some museum, which, she made clear, was her real interest.
At the same time, the industry is sprinkled with people who think they’re making “films” rather than movies, and who’d be embarrassed to learn that they’re in show business, a term they associate with those who don’t buy designer jeans. It’s not that they have contempt for the audience. It’s just that they’d never talk to any of its members.
Can Hollywood improve? Can it ever regain the glory of its distant past? Can it ever again attract people who want to move a nation, rather than just a Lexus? I think it’s possible, but change can probably come only in three ways. The first is generational. The current industry is too far gone to change quickly. It took a generation to destroy Hollywood’s golden age. It will take a generation, if things are done right, to restore at least something of value. (The same point is often made about reversing the damage to our universities.) The second way change can come is through new technology. Creative movie makers will find a way to put films on DVDs or hard disks, or some new medium, for reasonable budgets, and market them in ways that make the venture profitable. And they will develop techniques to appeal to the audience, just as early filmmakers did.
The third way change can come