Writing community suffering post-strike blues

Writers must deal with fantasy as well as reality on a day-to-day basis, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with this reality:

Six months after the end of the 100-day writers strike, the condition of the writing community is far more dire than it was before the strike.

Indeed, the net effect of the strike has been to exacerbate and accelerate all the ominous trends that already were looming over the writing trade.

Talk to writers, agents or company dealmakers and you learn that pay levels are declining, jobs are dwindling and overall deals are on the endangered list.

So are the writers themselves responding to these phenomena with reality or fantasy? Some initial clues will emerge from the vote for new WGA board members one month from now.

To be sure, it’s possible to read the events of the past few months in two ways. Theory one: The strike put the companies’ backs to the walls and triggered the cutbacks. As one network chief told me, “The strike announced loud and clear that my business model was out of date and that I had to take serious and immediate action.” To his mind, the strike was the clumsiest tactic by a Hollywood guild in generations.

Then there’s theory two: That these cutbacks would have happened with or without the strike — indeed, that the strike awakened the writers’ awareness that militancy was the only answer.

One ironic side effect of the writers strike, however, was to undercut the leverage of the militant Screen Actors Guild. Once the writers and directors had settled, there was little room for SAG to make its own macho deal — hence, the present stalemate.

Having pursued their course of militancy, were the writers’ gains worth the effort? Six months after their strike, guild leaders decline to give a new assessment. They feel, at the very least, that they have staked a claim in the “new media.”

But debates about the value of these gains have become ever more strident. SAG leaders have been using a data service called EMarketer as a source for claiming that online ads are a growing source of income for the studios.

Last week, however, EMarketer reported that that market isn’t as strong as earlier projected and it sharply reduced its spending projections for online video advertising. These projections are less than half of what they originally guessed.

The militants-vs-antimilitants divide also is stirring increasing antagonism even among the guilds. The Directors Guild last week reiterated its opposition to SAG’s demand for guild jurisdiction over all made-for-Internet productions. To the DGA, a more flexible approach to new media is vital to permit experimentation in the low-budget arena.

To be sure, anything involving new media arouses instant paranoia among so-called “militants” in the guild movement. And one reason for the paranoia is that the returns from this sector are so anemic.

The DGA has invested millions in research and study of new media, while SAG gives the impression of flying blind — and flying into the ground.

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