You've probably never heard of my friend Katherine. She's been working in Hollywood for 25 years now, and with the exception of one six-month period years ago, she's managed to make enough every year to keep her health and pension benefits current — no small thing in a town where you can stop any person on a street corner and ask them how their screenplay is coming and almost no one will tell you they don't have one.
What they don't have is someone paying them to write it, which is what makes Katherine's history of steady work so unusual. What's even more unusual is that she manages to actually get some of the screenplays made into movies, from "Flashdance," a few decades ago, to "I Dream of Jeannie," which is scheduled to start filming this spring.
But that doesn't mean you'll see her name in the credits. The way Hollywood works, it's common for writers to be hired one after another because they're cheap compared to the escalating costs of production. Studios hire and fire them with impunity in the hopes that whoever is next may have a few new jokes, or a character or plot twist, or some other brand of polish in them. The more and fancier writers you have, the easier it is to justify spending tens of millions of dollars on yet another teen comedy/alien abduction/gangster shootout.
You'd think this would be good for writers, since it would provide more opportunities for them to be hired, but it rarely works out that way. What it does is pit writers against each other in the agonizing process of determining who contributed more first, which determines not only who gets their name on the screen, but who collects the "back end" of the deal.
That kind of competition hardly breeds collegiality in a town known for its lack of it. When I first moved here, my then-boyfriend's job at a studio required us to frequently attend screenings and openings, and I was amazed at the mean-spiritedness I confronted. Schadenfreude Central.
I had come from the world of politics, where it seemed to me the stakes were quite a bit higher and the impossibility of mutual success was built into the system. Yet, at least in those days, there was more generosity of spirit in our fights for the fate of the free world than in the competition for credits and box office. Not only were writers pitted against each other, but their fights occurred at the low end of the food chain. The Polish joke, if you'll pardon me, was that she slept with the writer. How dumb could you be?
Of course, there are a few writers who make a lot of money.
It's not exactly a recipe for creating a cohesive force of committed activists, given the enormous disparities, the inherent competitiveness, the lack of a general sense of good will or community that characterizes the way business is done in this city.
Which is what makes the current strike so remarkable. My friend Katherine is on the picket lines every day. She is marching with writers 20 years older and 30 years younger, with the giants who have made it and the kids who are still dreaming, with people who are considering jobs at Starbucks and people who in truth never have to work again.
And she is finding a second wind, renewing her creative voice, recommitting herself to both the creative process and the creative community. Something is happening in this strike that hasn't happened in past strikes, and that may change the way business is done in this usually nasty town.
Part of it is the 4 cents business. When you buy a DVD, the writer gets 4 cents. They wanted 8 cents. Big deal. The studios said they couldn't afford it. So, at least this is what is being reported, the writers at the last minute said, we'll take the 4 cents issue off the table if you'll at least negotiate on the issue of whether the writer gets anything at all, and how much, when you watch a TV show (and the commercials that surround it) online. And the studios and producers still said no. And it became clear that not only did many of the studios want this strike, they really didn't have any respect for the work of the writers. That wasn't a bargaining tactic. It was the truth.
When you finally become convinced that people you have spent your life trying to please, people who are much richer than you'll ever be, don't respect what you do, there are two ways you can go. You can be depressed and despondent; you can, at some fundamental level, start to agree with them. You can let them turn you into something less than you thought you were. You can become prisoners of war.
Or you can find it within yourself to define your worth and value without regard to them. You can accept that the real mirror is the one you hold, the measure you take of yourself, not the one they impose. Maybe it was just old-fashioned greed that spurred the producers and studios to take the hard line they have, but what they've communicated in the process is such a fundamental lack of respect that many writers — neurotic, insecure, competitive and individualistic though they may be as a breed — have had no choice but to find the strength, security and dignity that lies at their core and flourishes in a community.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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