The apparent suicide of a wellknown TV comedy writer last month has rattled many people in the creative community.
(From the pages of the April 2 issue of Variety.)
The inexorable tragedy of suicide is that the motivation can never be fully understood. But as news of the writer’s death spread, TV biz vets seized it as a heartbreaking example — rightly or wrongly — of the intensifying pressures that many writers face in the contempo entertainment landscape. The frequent declaration that we are in a Golden Age for television programming is a double-edged sword for the wordsmiths who are the first line of defense between brilliant and canceled.
It’s true that there is more work than ever before for writers because there are more outlets serving up original content. Cable’s appetite for originals has grown faster than anyone could have predicted 10 years ago. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle and a few dozen other digital players are spending real money on series-style fare.
But the flood of opportunities on lower-end projects has put downward pressure on network TV pay scales, especially for writers who came up in the go-go 1990s. Plenty of scribes whose earnings might have reached seven figures through rich overall deals, pilot and script fees and maybe a little punch-up work on features now have to work harder, and on more projects at any given time, to pull in two-thirds of what they made a decade ago. This has been true for some time, but accelerated after the one-two punch of the three-month writers strike that ended in February 2008 and the economic meltdown that rocked the rest of the world.
In the words of one longtime lit agent: “You’re not going to hold a telethon for people who are only making $250,000 a year instead of $2 million, but it still hurts.” Indeed, the income cut is relative, especially for families that grew accustomed to living the 1% lifestyle in L.A.
Another byproduct of the growth of the content marketplace is the widening of the divide between the good and the great. Talent has always been the great leveler that helps keep the creative side of showbiz a meritocracy, for the most part. Those who can deliver a dynamite script or an amazing shot will rarely want for work. And there’s no shortage of low-rung jobs for tyro writers to gain experience and the opportunity to impress future employers. Heck, even bloggers with a flair for marketing their virtual “voice” are commanding development deals.
With so much competition for writing talent, those that prove to be superstars command premiums — high salaries, fat development deals, big network commitments — and that largess tightens the purse strings for everyone else. And the steady migration of boldface names from the feature realm into TV only adds to the squeeze.
The dynamic of the job picture for middle-class, middle-age film and TV scribes is fraught with promise and peril, some calling for the WGA and other industry orgs to do more to help counsel scribes facing career turmoil.
Lyn Morris, division director of the suicide prevention center at the Culver City-based non-profit Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, cautions that it’s almost always impossible to determine why a person commits suicide. Those who do are suffering from deep depression or another form of mental illness in about 90% of cases.
“Suicide is not simple,” Morris says. “People don’t like to talk about it because of the stigma of mental illness. We know suicide rates tend to go up slightly in economic recessions. But it’s too complex to be able to say that a death was related to just one thing.”
The Hirsch org offers prevention and counseling services at its 11 locations. Perhaps most important are the groups for people who have attempted or contemplated suicide, Morris says.
“Part of our mission is to build a community of survivors who can help each other without feeling any stigma or shame or pressure,” she says. “Our human instinct when we know someone who is depressed is to say ‘Look at all you have going for you — tomorrow will be a better day.’ But the truth is, people who are hurting that bad need somebody to talk to about the pain.”