Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On the writers strike

This is going to call back to my prior "Larry Sanders" post below to a certain degree.

I'm a writer. Freelance. Over the years I've run a very popular sports related website. I've written for various publications on the subject of computers. I've also written about games for a site I won't name here as the site was taken over by suits who ousted me for the exact reasons they hired me in the first place (my attitude toward the game industry), and they don't deserve the publicity. I've reviewed movies, games, books. I've also written comedy pieces for other places. I have a screenplay finished. I have a script for a sitcom largely finished. I've got piles of other ideas. I've got short stories. Kids stories. An entire archive of sports writing. Hell, in a few months I'll have a lot on this blog. (Maybe.)

I've spent the last eight years of my life dedicated to writing for a living. I am a good writer. I know that makes me sound like a cocky prick, but I'm really not. Anyone who knows me knows how I'm my harshest critic, hate a lot of what I write, always put myself down... In short, I am not one to praise myself. While I think a lot less of my writing than friends and readers over the years have, writing is one of the few things I consider myself good at. (Being a Dad is the other. Most of the time anyway.)

Yet I sit here unemployed. Over the last eight years many many people have said "Man, how are you not writing for (insert a variety of publishers or scenarios here)!" I can't give them an answer as I genuinely don't know. I guess it all comes down to breaks, and I haven't gotten mine. Am I bitter? A little perhaps, but writing is one of the few things I really enjoy, so if I never receive another dime for it for the rest of my life, while that would hurt, both on a financial and emotional level, that's just the way it is. I never started writing thinking "I can make money at this!" I started writing for the sheer joy of writing, and stumbled backwards into freelancing when, on a whim I wrote to a magazine and said "Hey, here's a sample. Hire me!" And they did! Sadly this was right before, for want of a better word, a "regime change". I started writing at age five on a battered old typewriter, and while the hardware I use has evolved considerably, I still get that same joy from writing I did when I was a kid. Writing is a joy. Any financial remuneration is greatly appreciated, but secondary to the enjoyment I get from writing.

So when the shadow of a writers strike loomed earlier this year, I was thinking "Yeah! DOWN WITH THE SUITS! WITHOUT WRITERS THEY'RE NOTHING! NO NEW PORSCHE FOR YOU! WE RULE!" All viva la revolution and other typically naive rantings from someone who hadn't taken a step back to consider things.

Now here we are. We're what now? Two months into the strike? At the start I had sympathy. I mean make no bones about it, the media companies are unethical and screwed the writers 20 years ago on home video residuals and want to continue that reaming. Writers also make nothing from online content they write, as it's considered "promotion". The companies rake in money from film and TV. Were it not for the writers they'd have nothing to hire actors for. In fact we're at the point now where a lot of actors can do what they want due to force majeure. Despite what many would have you believe, without writers, there IS no Hollywood movie industry, and television becomes a wasteland of reality shows. It's already on its way there. I just want to make sure anyone reading this knows I am not on the studios side in any of this.

My sympathy for the writers started to collapse when I read of a campaign to mail pencils to studio heads to show your support for the writers strike. Pencils! Yes, I see the metaphor. I get the joke. It's pathetic. The WGA claim that at any given time, around 45% of their members are unemployed. So 45% are unable to put food on the table, or at least that's the claim. So by that token, almost half the people on strike didn't have a job anyway. Surely sending money to support the striking writers and their families so they can put food on the table makes more sense than sending Les Moonves a box of HB's.

So now we reach the point that has slowly gnawed away at me over the weeks to get me to the point I'm at now. Where I just don't care anymore.

I am a huge fan of "Lost". I am certain that on some level, JJ Abrams and friends are just messing with us. Pulling stuff out of a hat. Rolling a dice. Making stuff up as they go along, claiming that it's all going somewhere. Regardless of any theories I have about the writers of that show laughing at us, I love the show to bits. My favourite network TV show of all time is "Twin Peaks", and "Lost" is the closest any hour long has come to equaling it I think. Great acting, great scripts and that hard to quantify "What the hell?" factor that I find so compelling. Fantastic overall story arc as well. ABC are burning off the eight episodes already produced for season four early next year. Beyond that, who knows when we'll be back to the island. Season four was already shortened to sixteen episodes. Apparently the last of those eight episodes we're getting ends on a massive cliffhanger. I'm sure I'll be angry and ecstatic in equal measure when I see it.

That is it, however, for current network programming. I look at the rest of the output and in large part shake my head. It's very hard to keep sympathy for the WGA, because an awful lot of them are talentless hacks who have no business writing, and either never had the talent in the first place, getting in via means other than talent and ability, or actually HAD talent, but squandered it and lost interest along the way, choosing now to phone it in for an easy pay cheque.

Case in point: Shows like "Arrested Development" die, and even when alive always seemed to be under threat of the axe at any moment. I was never a big fan of AD, but I know quality writing when I see it, regardless of whether I actually like a show or movie. AD was a top quality show.

It's dead, and yet "According to Jim" lives on. Conclusive proof that Satan really has found his kingdom on Earth. I've seen a few episodes over the years of this atrocity. The show isn't funny. End of story. It's poorly written, relying on tepid, reheated jokes that weren't funny twenty years ago, and every comedic cliche in the book. Despite not being a fan of "Arrested Development", I could not sit through an entire episode stone faced. Something would make me laugh whether I wanted it too or not. That is the sign of good comedy writing. When you sit down, and like a force of nature, something makes you laugh.

Not a problem with "According to Jim". It is easy to sit through multiple episodes showing absolutely no emotion. (Since I don't think disgust is technically an emotion.) Yet the show lives on. Clearly there are people out there that watch it. The same people who voted for Bush probably. Either that or Belushi has a massive extended family that are all Nielsen households.

The same is true of movies. In fact before the year ends I will endeavour to write pieces on my favourite cinematic jaunts of the year, (to use a tiresome Internet meme, "Wright and Pegg FTW!") as there has been some good stuff this year. Yet vast cinematic experiments like "Grindhouse" tank, while the latest family friendly garbage starring washed up 80's comics or former gangsta rappers take in the national debt of several third world countries on opening weekend, then does the same on DVD. (In "Full Screen" no doubt as well.) Just like "According to Jim", it's WGA members writing these cinematic abominations.

With other strikes it's easy to sympathize to a certain degree. I remember the fire fighters strikes that happened in the UK. Now there is a group of people that do important, valuable work. I don't think there is one person who can make the argument that fire fighters don't deserve more money.

Then we've got the writers strike. For every writer who writes for something the quality of "Lost", there is one who writes for something akin to "According to Jim", and to be quite honest, the latter deserve to never earn a single cent again, as they are an insult. Both to viewers intelligence and writers as a whole. I have a friend who likes the "CSI" shows. I don't especially like them. (Even if Caruso rules the world!) However I can see their appeal. Same as "Law and Order" and it's many spinoff shows. Not a fan myself, but I can understand why folk dig them.

In the fifth season of "Red Dwarf" there was an episode titled "Demons and Angels". Without going into details, something happens that causes the ship to be split into two versions. On one there is all that is good and pure. On the other all that is bad and putrescent.

A similar concept for writers guilds would be great.

We'd have one that is all that is good and pure. The good writers. The talented writers. The ones who excel in their field. They all belong to this guild. They picket. They win. They get the residuals from home video they deserve. They get paid for their work appearing online. They continue to produce exceptional scripts and screenplays.

The second guild is filled with the talentless hacks, the lazy ones, the bottom feeders, the writers who just can't be bothered and churn out utter crap to make money. Who never aspire to push themselves or the boundaries of the medium they write for. They choose the easy route, filled with old jokes, tired concepts etc.... They lucked into their career by being in the right place at the right time, and while completely unworthy, continue to be gainfully employed writing absolute garbage while other, more talented writers, struggle to make ends meet.

In a fair world, the second guild would never work again.

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