The Big Question: Why are Hollywood's scriptwriters going on strike, and does it matter?

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What's the story with the writers?

Hollywood's film and television writers could go out on strike as early as today. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been talking to studio representatives on and off for the past three months and has made absolutely no progress in negotiating a new three-year contract. The old one expired at midnight on Wednesday – Hallowe'en night – and a last-ditch effort by a federal mediator to broker some sort of peace collapsed six hours before the deadline.

In theory, the WGA could instruct its members to keep working under the old contract while it continues to negotiate – for several more months if necessary. But an unusually militant WGA leadership appears bent on confrontation in an attempt to force the studios' hand. Thousands of WGA members were expected to meet at the Los Angeles Convention Center late last night to discuss their next move. Most people in the industry expect a strike sooner rather than later.

So what's their grievance about?

It's an old, old story, dating back to the last writers' strike in 1988, if not further. The WGA believes its members have never been properly compensated for new media platforms, starting with home video in the 1980s through to the current era of DVDs, online streaming, mobile phone downloads and more.

After two decades of disgruntled acquiescence, the writers have decided enough is enough. They currently make about five cents on every DVD sale, which they regard as an outrage given the ever-increasing revenues of the media conglomerates who own the studios and rake in the bulk of the money. They are pushing for royalties – or residuals as they are known in the business – at double the current rate.

Why won't the studios deal?

Nick Counter, the head of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers who is negotiating on the studios' behalf, says a new deal on DVD residuals is out of the question. He argues that the new media landscape is still too uncertain for the studios to be able to commit to higher payouts to writers, especially since production and marketing costs on movies and television shows are rising faster than can easily be forecast for more than a few months at a time.

That argument, though, masks a deeper reality, which is that the studios and their corporate backers have very deep pockets and can probably weather a labour dispute for as long as it takes. In other words, they have decided to stare down the writers in the full expectation that the writers will blink first.

Aren't they very highlypaid as it is?

Yes and no. It's certainly true that the top scriptwriters command fees of well north of $1m (£480,000) per movie. Top television writers and the showrunners – the leaders of teams of writers – like John Wells, who started ER, or Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) or David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice), or Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue) have no financial worries in the short or long term. Anyone working on their shows, or writing a major studio film, will do very nicely indeed. But there is a difference between lavish compensation and financial security.

Most of the 7,000-odd WGA members in regular work hop from show to show, with frequent fallow periods in between. When they are working, they have no problems. But when they are not, they rely on residuals from successful past shows to keep up with mortgage payments, children's college fees and other commitments. Many worry about their "nut" – the amount of money they need to average each month to maintain their lifestyle. Nothing infuriates them more than constant reruns of their old shows on television, or skyrocketing DVD sales of a hit movie, without much more than the tiniest of bumps in their bank accounts.

Is there an issue of respect here?

You bet there is. Ever since the rowdy days of the 1930s, when Hollywood writers first agitated to form a union – the WGA eventually came along in 1941 – studio heads have regarded them with suspicion if not outright disdain.

The resentment, arguably, stems back to the advent of talking pictures, when producers saw the need to hire writers in the first place as an irritating extra expense. It didn't help that many of the writers flocking out to California from the East Coast and beyond were intellectuals with raging egos and, often, radical political views. The writers quickly came to harbour resentments of their own – notably, the fact that the director of a movie usually gets the lion's share of the credit, and that the studio owns the copyright to their words and has the (frequently exercised) right to change them partially or, indeed, completely.

John Gregory Dunne, the late novelist and screenwriter who was married to Joan Didion, wrote entertainingly in his Hollywood memoir Monster of how some scripts end up 100 per cent removed from the version submitted by the writer whose name appears in the credits.

Another powerful encapsulation of the power balance in Hollywood came with Robert Altman's movie The Player, in which a producer murders a writer and gets away with it.

So didn't they go on strike before?

Since 1988, when the writers walked out for 22 weeks, there has usually been a peacemaker figure to ward off industrial action. On the producers' side, it was often Lew Wasserman, the legendary agent turned Universal Studios chief who died in 2002. On the writers' side it was most recently – during a hairy negotiating season in 2001 – John Wells. Now, though, the WGA has a much less accommodating leadership, spearheaded by David Young, a veteran union leader who has represented builders and garment workers in the past. He and Nick Counter have made little secret of their loathing for one another.

How would a strike be felt?

It depends on how long it lasts. The first shows to feel the brunt would be topical television programmes like late-night chat shows, with their opening monologues pegged to the day's news, or satirical newscasts like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (whose host, Stephen Colbert, has launched a tongue-in-cheek presidential bid).

The television stations work months in advance and are very well stocked on scripts for their various drama series and one off dramatic production as well as comedy until at least next spring.

Canny movie producers went on a script-buying splurge in September and October, although the quality of their purchases is far from assured.

However, a long walkout could start causing serious problems around January or February. Movies will keep coming out, but they will undoubtedly get lousier as time goes on.

Are the writers right to go on strike?


* They deserve a fair share of increased revenue from DVD and new media formats

* It is the only they are likely get their due from a notoriously intransigent industry

* Producers may not like writers, but they can't live without them


* They refuse even to consider the concessions that have been offered by the producers

* Confrontation will just alienate and embolden the studios more

* The media conglomerates are too powerful, and will just wait any strike out until the writers fold