What Past Hollywood Writers’ Strikes Tell Us About the Future of Movies

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If you look at the coverage around the current Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, or the one that took place in 2007-2008, it tends to revolve around television. With TV taking less time to produce more content, a strike of any significant length of time will affect that medium well before the big-budget world of film, where the average length of pre-production can range anywhere from six months to a year.

As the writer John Gregory Dunne once wrote in his essay “Hollywood: Opening Moves,” “From the earliest days of the motion picture industry … the screenwriter has been regarded at best as an anomalous necessity, at worst a curse to be born.” Though audiences starting in Hollywood’s earliest days came to know the names of some prominent screenwriters, like Dalton Trumbo and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, they’ve also found themselves at the center of disputes since moviemaking started.

Screenwriters have been at the center of union formation starting back in the 1910s, initially setting themselves up as part of the Authors Guild. But when the early scenario writers discovered they were doing far different work than authors, some bandied about a desire to form a proper union.

It wasn’t until 1920 that a group of screenwriters, angry over reductions in their wages, took to form the Screen Writers Guild, according to the Writers Guild Foundation website. The early group took out a letter in Variety decrying the “the numerous abuses to which the screen writer is subject,” according to Writers Guild writer Hilary Swett. But as Howard Suber, professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and co-founder of the UCLA film archive, told TheWrap, “It wasn’t much, kind of a social club.”

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The early tenets of this Writers Guild sought to “secure copyright protection for original story manuscripts and scenarios of motion pictures,” “procure adequate screen, advertising and publicity credit” and “help its members secure adequate compensation and recognition for their efforts.” That desire to determine credit, ironically, is something Suber said writers deal with too often even today. “It’s often said it’s more important than the money you get paid,” he said.

After its quick formation, the Guild would become practically a nonentity by 1927. Around that same time MGM head Louis B. Mayer formed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It was formed, because labor, not just the writers, but labor in general was part of the national phenomenon forming across the country,” Suber said.

However, the Academy at the time tended to only accept the highest-profile stars, directors and screenwriters that, coupled with it being sponsored by the studios, sowed mistrust among what remained of the Writers Guild.

A rash of salary reductions leading up to the Great Depression, coupled with the arrival of the first all-talking motion picture “The Jazz Singer,” led the Screen Writers Guild to blossom again. It implemented a “Writer-Producer Code of Practice,” according to Swett, that established credit guidelines and how freelance writers could operate. In 1933, the Screen Writers Guild decided to get serious and in April of that year the new Screen Writers Guild was formed with 173 charter members. It proved to be the model, according to Swett, for other guilds that popped up in its wake, including the Screen Actors Guild (established in 1933) and the Screen Directors Guild (1936).

After those intense years of formation, the Writers Guild didn’t go on its first major strike until 1960. Both WGA West and East banded together against the Association of Motion Picture Producers, engaging in a strike that lasted 146 days. The Guild took issue with the payment of broadcast royalties for films that aired on television.

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A settlement would be reached on June 10, 1960. It saw the studios paying into the writers’ pension and health care and giving 5% of the studio’s income from pre-1960 films that aired on TV (2% would be given for post-1960 films).

Subsequent strikes involving the Writers Guild took place in the 1970s and 1980s, with the emphasis more on the growing significance of television. Pay TV rates would become the spark for another strike in 1988. Minimum rates for writers were increased to $350 a week with a 10% raise for the first two years and then 5% or the next year and a half.

But the rise of new technologies have always been at the forefront of Hollywood writers’ strikes, whether that’s the 1960s — involving film on TV — or the 1988 one focused on TV residuals. Most famously, the strike of 2007-2008 focused on DVDs and home entertainment residuals.

The strides made in that most recent strike, as Suber said, are more of a Pyrrhic victory without any real teeth to them, as we’re seeing with the current strike. “Within a few years, DVD generated half of the film industry’s income. What nobody could foresee was that, not that many years later, this thing we now call streaming was going to start coming in and people were going to stop buying or even renting DVDs,” he said.

It’s a key reason, according to Suber, why he believes compromise will have to be made in this strike, especially with the theatrical experience still on shaky ground.

Find all our coverage on the writers’ strike here.

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