So, any aggression by writers against the corporate elite captures this writer's attention -- especially lawsuits by journalists, screenwriters or script writers against their employers. I've pitched news stories for a fee to The Village Voice and to The New York Times only to find "my story" published a month or two later... but authored by their own staff writer. That is life as a freelance journalist...and there is nothing I can do legally, except publish all of my work for free on the Internet. Problem solved.
But with six scripts under my belt (one sold) to date no one has yet stolen a screenplay, in part, because the Writers Guild of America [www.wga.org] provides a registration service for screenplays that dates and certifies your work for $35. Journalism has no such device, and once you've submitted your feature story to a print publication --which may have taken you 120 hours to write-- it is your word against the newspaper's legal staff, and they always contend that the story was already on their editorial calendar. Case closed.
However, one new and one old problem exists for script writers in the television and film industries and writers are no longer standing still. First, as reported in The Los Angeles Times in March 2005, a group of "over 40-year-old" writers have filed age discrimination suits against major film companies, but this action is not new. Script writing jobs --some of the most difficult jobs to secure-- are going to the 20-something-year-old writers, because the younger group sells themselves cheap while their parents subsidize the young writer's income.
The older professionals know their life-earned union rights and are seen by the film companies as an expense they can do without. But the union is in place to protect the integrity of the "craft," and you'll have to trust me when I say "unless you have written a screenplay, in format, don't kid yourself about the process being simple."
You, the viewer, can sit back and enjoy a feature film in theater, but the writer(s) behind that film may have spent three or more full-time years putting it together. Time, practice --and age-- are the building blocks of a good screenwriter, not a cute face, sex appeal, and a bachelor's degree from USC.
In September 2004 there was an attempt in Los Angeles Superior Court to consolidate 23 age-discrimination suits into one, representing hundreds of writers in 12 different television networks and production companies and 11 talent agencies. Time Warner and the William Morris Agency headline the lawsuit, but others charged include: Universal Television, Fox Entertainment, Regency Television, Greenblatt Janollari Studio, NBC, Warner Bros., and WB, Castle Rock Television, Walt Disney, Miramax Film Corp., Touchtone Television, Buena Vista Television, USA Networks, Viacom, Dreamworks, Paramount, CBS, Spelling Entertainment companies, Big Ticket Television, Creative Management, and Paradigm Talent & Literary Agency.
And now a new lawsuit has emerged for script writers of reality television shows. At first, it does seem possible that reality television --which is suppose to be filmed with the unplanned candor of reality-- requires script writers. However, despite what the average viewer perceives, those script writers come up with ideas and sketches and creative plots in which to place the actors. Film companies say that since the script writer only comes up with ideas --and not actual dialog-- the production companies are immune from following writer's union labor laws.
In Los Angeles on 7 July, 12 script writers filed suit against reality shows for skipping overtime wages and breaks on television the shows: The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Are You Hot?, The Two Timer, The Will, The Starlet, and The Real Gilligan's Island. Script writers work anonymously to create dramatic tension to fit the spontaneity of the format, and receive titles of story editor, story producer, story assistant, or segment producer the suit states. The Bachelor and the other shows established a flat weekly rate for an 84-hour work week. The average hourly wage was less than $10 per hour, but capped the paid-for-hours at 40 per week.
The suit states that script writers were required to work without overtime or breaks, and were asked to falsify their timesheets to show less hours worked.
"These violations of California law are no mere accounting errors," said Writers Guild of America West president Daniel Petrie Jr. "They are deliberately designed to deny these writers the basic rights and legal protections of fair wages, overtime, and a meal break. Unfortunately, those cases are not unique. It is but one example of the pervasive conditions we have found in reality television productions–and it underscores why so many reality writers and editors have come to the Writers Guild seeking union representation."
Writing for reality television is nothing more than a "sweatshop" job, Petrie said. Reality television shows are typically cheap to produce as the "actors" are non union and therefore only receive a lump sum in exchange for the instant fame they gain, and no sets or retakes are required.
Some 1,000 script writers have signed authorization cards with the Writers Guild for representation.
Television networks CBS, ABC, WB, and TBS, are named in the "reality" lawsuit. The Walt Disney Company owns ABC, Viacom Inc., owns CBS, and Time Warner owns WB and TBS.
In the decades ahead, this may all be sorted out without court hearings. The tide has changed against the corporate entertainment industry due to one new form of broadcast: The Internet.
Independent film companies, personal websites, and the ability to produce a good show with digital technology will eventually replace the corporate powerhouses. That may at first seem ridiculous, but when you examine the generational data of who now watches television or pays to view a motion picture in a theater versus who either prefers to or does turn exclusively to the Internet for entertainment, the Internet will win. This might be the best of times to dump your broadcasting shares, before their profitability is as worthless as their labor practices are against writers.
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