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Oxford, Mississippi — Here in the heart of Yoknapatawpha (Lafayette) County, I think about our favorite literary son, William Faulkner, during his time as a screenwriter in Hollywood and how he would feel about the current strike by members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), now past the 100-day mark, and members of the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union.
Faulkner tended to keep his political cards close to his chest, but perhaps he might remember the boast of Warner Brothers executive Jack Warner that he had hired the world’s best writer for “peanuts.” While the Mississippi-born writer saw his Hollywood wages rise and fall depending on the mood of his benefactors, his main goal always was to earn enough money to get back home to Oxford to do some real writing.
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For the screenwriters and actors today striking for better wages and conditions in Hollywood, this is their livelihood as well as their home, and they want the security that pensions and health care plans bring. Launched by some 11,000 screenwriters on May 2 and joined a month ago by the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA, the strike is one of the largest in Hollywood history.
The strikers are demanding fair wages from the residuals that streaming media bring, plus guarantees that the expanding artificial intelligence technology will be used in positive ways, such as helping research and story ideas — not in ways to take their jobs. The writers also want guarantees on minimum working hours, as well as pension and health care plans.
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Thus far, these demands have met a stone wall erected by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which has dismissed the complaints of writers/actors and accused them of striking at a particularly vulnerable time for the industry. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, famous for her role in the television series The Nanny (1993-99), has become a rousing spokesperson not only for the strikers but for labor as a whole.
“What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor,” Drescher said during a recent press conference. “When employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run, we have a problem.”
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A strike “is a very serious thing that impacts thousands, if not millions, of people around this country and all over the world,” Drescher continued. “We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity… how they plead poverty, that they are losing money left and right, when they are giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs.”
Indeed, nearly 90 percent of SAG-AFTRA actors make less than $26,470 a year, the required minimum to qualify for health care insurance. Screenwriters have seen their pay decline by as much as 23 percent over the last 10 years. By contrast, in the corporate offices of the $43 billion Warner/Discovery/CNN company, Warner Brothers CEO David Zaslav earned $500 million between 2018 and 2022. His company fired 1,000 workers in 2022. At the $120 billion Comcast/Universal/NBC outfit, top executive Brian Roberts raked in $170 million over the past five years. The gap between what AMPTP is offering and what the WGA is demanding is wide. AMPTP has offered a plan totaling some $86 million. The WGA wants $429 million.
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Writers have never been particularly valued in Hollywood, even though their work is central to the film industry. The great director and screenwriter Billy Wilder talked about the particular challenge and importance of a writer in Hollywood. “Writing is just an empty page. You start with nothing, absolutely nothing, and, as a rule, writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It is totally impossible to make a great picture out of a lousy script.”
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The aforementioned Warner called writers “schmucks with Underwoods.” Darryl F. Zanuck so despised the union activity that was growing in movieland in the late 1930s that he threatened, “if those guys set up a picket line and try to shut down my studio, I’ll mount a machine gun on the roof and mow them down.”
In the late 1920s, another powerful mogul, Louis B. Mayer, was key in the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in part as an effort to quell labor activity. He pushed for a “writers division” within the Academy that would deal with writer disputes and issues. In other words, a company union. The Academy’s nod to a 50 percent pay cut in 1933 helped inspire a resurrection of the Screen Writers Guild, an early version of the WGA.
It’s the Academy that awards the world-famous Oscars. Is Oscar, in reality, just a gold-plated union buster?
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Hollywood disdain for writers showed its ugly face throughout the industry’s “Golden Years.” One Thanksgiving during the 1930s, Republic Pictures fired every writer on the lot to avoid holiday pay and then re-hired them the following Monday.
During the post-World War II purge of left-leaning sympathies across the country, the notorious U.S. House for Un-American Activities focused its attention on Hollywood and suspicions that closet communists were sneaking their propaganda into the motion pictures Americans were watching. The Hollywood 10, all but two screenwriters, stood up to the HUAC demagogues and paid the price of prison and blacklisting as a result.
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Even after the HUAC rampages lost momentum, writers had to face the next challenge of so-called “auteur” theory, which insisted directors are the true creators of film, the true artists responsible for what is seen on the screen, further diminishing the role of the screenwriter. Screenwriters “had weathered the contract system, they had survived the blacklist, and then — in the early 1960s — they found themselves more or less eliminated from the critical-historical map,” writes Ian Hamilton in his book Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951.
What is happening today is the latest battle in a long struggle for writers, and the actors who speak their words on screen stand in solidarity with them. Fran Drescher says that solidarity speaks to the importance of this moment. “At some point, the jig is up. This is a moment of history, a moment of truth. AMPTP, you have to wake up and smell the coffee. You can’t exist without us.”
Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran journalist, writer and professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Kentucky, 2020), and the novel Casey’s Last Chance (Sartoris Literary Group, 2015). His blog is http://www.laborsouth.blogspot.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.
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