Saturday, November 24, 2007

Santa Barbara Writers Strike, Too

Writer James Kahn Talks TV, Online Media, and the Money Therein

By Victoria Woodard Harvey

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

“Don’t be greedy, don’t be petty. You won’t get your Ugly Betty!” — Striker’s slogan heard outside the gates at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood

Since the Writers Guild of America (WGA) declared a strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on November 5, several prime-time series and most late-night talk shows have completely halted production, casting uncertainty on the future of the 2007-08 television season. More cease-production orders are expected by the end of the month. Network brass and scheduling chiefs are facing a crisis as reserves of prepared scripts run out, and on-set writers stand in picket lines.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards have publicly supported the WGA’s 12,000 writers. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger urged both parties to resume negotiations in an effort to minimize the effect on the California economy.

One of many Los Angeles industry commuters who resides in Santa Barbara, James Kahn is a novelist and screenwriter whose work includes episodes of St. Elsewhere, Melrose Place, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and his personal favorite, Xena: Warrior Princess.

Some WGA members affected by the strike in 1988 were not satisfied with their settlement, particularly around the issue of residuals. Is this payback time? In 1988, when DVDs were the coming thing, there was a negotiation about what the writer’s residual should be. Screenwriters get paid a flat fee per script, then a residual payment every time the episode is rebroadcast or sold retail. I make 43 dollars every time one of my Melrose Place episodes gets shown.

The studios complained DVDs were an unknown medium that they might go broke trying to develop, so the WGA agreed to cut them a break: The writer of the movie would get four cents for every DVD sold. Never mind that the guy who made the box the DVD came in got a dollar per DVD — the writer got four cents. Reminds me of the quote by legendary MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, who told Louis B. Mayer, “The most important guys in the business are the writers — and we must never let them know.”

Where do the two sides currently disagree? Writers are still making four cents per DVD, while studio revenues have skyrocketed. So we went into these negotiations saying we wanted our cut to go up to eight cents. We also wanted money for movies and TV shows on the Internet — writers currently don’t get a nickel for anything we’ve written that ends up on your laptop. The AMPTP said the Internet is an unknown medium that companies might go broke trying to develop. (Sound familiar?) So they’re not going to pay writers anything for product distributed online.

What other issues do the writers have about how profits are shared? The studios decided to roll back the old TV and film model as well, so the writer wouldn’t get any residual in any medium until the studio showed a profit on that show or movie. Ever hear of Hollywood accounting? Shows never show profit. Titanic, which grossed billions, is still in the red, on the books. So is The Simpsons.

What concerns you most about the current negotiations? The sleaziest aspect of all this is the arrogant greed of the corporate owners. Writers collectively get 55 million bucks a year in residuals. If the studios gave us everything we were asking for, that would go up to $75 million. Just one company —Viacom — has annual revenue of $18 billion, and its top execs make about $60 million apiece annually.

How does this affect the writers in the long term? The money is important, but psychologically it all comes back to Irving Thalberg — writers get no respect. We invite it on ourselves to a certain extent. Every writer I know oscillates between “Hey, I’m pretty good,” and “What ever made me think I could write?” Executives, like all bullies, seize on that glassy-eyed diffidence in writers, who were usually the unpopular kids in high school. It’s just high school all over again. But now the currency is actual money instead of who gets asked to the prom. And in the 21st century, the Internet is where the money is.

Have you gone to the picket lines? I just attended my first picket line since Vietnam. Hundreds of us carried signs in front of Universal Studios. It was noisy because so many passing cars kept honking in support. It’s a writer-friendly town, except for the guys who hire us. Picketers were shouting movie lines. (“Today no Spartan dies!”)

My favorite moment: An executive pulled out of Universal in an electric car and had to stop at the red light near us. The strike captain ran up to him enthusiastically, said, “I love your car, man. What’s it like to drive?” The executive just kept staring straight ahead. Strike captain: “Come on, roll down your window; talk to me.” The executive inched his window down, muttered, “I can’t talk to you. This is being filmed.” The light turned; he drove off. We looked around and found a hidden camera, no doubt documenting us for future reprisals. But the strike captain just faced the camera full frontal, dropped his pants, and said “I hope you guys have a really big lens.” And then others behind him started shouting: “I am Spartacus!” “No, I am Spartacus!”

The 1988 strike lasted 22 weeks. What is your forecast of the impact of this strike on writers and on the California economy? It’s fun and games now, but likely to be long and ugly. Nobody wanted a strike, but writers need to make a living. Residuals are what pays the rent during those bleak, sometimes lengthy periods “between things.” Of course some screenwriters are rich, but most of us just get along. Being out of work on a picket line doesn’t help anybody’s pocketbook. If the strike continues, the entire L.A. economy is going to take a big hit — restaurants and copy shops will close, the real estate market will plummet even faster. Fortunately, the AMPTP has agreed to come back to the negotiating table on November 26, due in no small part to the solidarity of the strikers, enormous support by SAG and Teamsters, and, interestingly, exposure of the studios’ hypocrisy on the blogosphere — the very area they want so badly to control.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

No end in sight for woes in Pakistan


London Independent November 4, 2007

For anyone marinated in the history of Pakistan yesterday's decision by the military to impose a state of emergency comes as no surprise. Martial law in this country has become an antibiotic: in order to obtain the same results one has to keep doubling the doses. This was a coup within a coup.

General Pervez Musharraf ruled the country with a civilian fa├žade, but his power base was limited to the army. And it was the army Chief of Staff who declared the emergency, suspended the 1973 constitution, took all non-government TV channels off the air, jammed the mobile phone networks, surrounded the Supreme Court with paramilitary units, dismissed the Chief Justice, arrested the president of the bar association and inaugurated yet another shabby period in the country's history.

Why? They feared that a Supreme Court judgment due next week might make it impossible for Musharraf to contest the elections. The decision to suspend the constitution was taken a few weeks ago. According to good sources, contrary to what her official spokesman has been saying ("she was shocked"), Benazir Bhutto was informed and chose to leave the country before it happened. (Whether her "dramatic return" was also pre-arranged remains to be seen.) Intoxicated by the incense of power, she might now discover that it remains as elusive as ever. If she ultimately supports the latest turn it will be an act of political suicide. If she decides to dump the general (she accused him last night of breaking his promises), she will be betraying the confidence of the US state department, which pushed her this way.

The two institutions targeted by the emergency are the judiciary and the broadcasters, many of whose correspondents supply information that politicians never give. Geo TV continued to air outside the country. Hamid Mir, one of its sharpest journalists, said yesterday he believed the US embassy had green-lighted the coup because they regarded the Chief Justice as a nuisance and "a Taliban sympathiser".

The regime has been confronted with a severe crisis of legitimacy that came to a head earlier this year when Musharraf's decision to suspend the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Hussain Chaudhry, provoked a six-month long mass movement that forced a government retreat. Some of Chaudhry's judgments had challenged the government on key issues such as "disappeared prisoners", harassment of women and rushed privatisations. It was feared that he might declare a uniformed president illegal.

The struggle to demand a separation of powers between the state and the judiciary, which has always been weak, was of critical importance. Pakistan's judges have usually been acquiescent. Those who resisted military leaders were soon bullied out of it, so the decision of this chief justice to fight back was surprising, but extremely important and won him enormous respect. Global media coverage of Pakistan suggests a country of generals, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics. The struggle to reinstate the Chief Justice presented a different snapshot of the country.

The Supreme Court's declaration that the new dispensation was "illegal and unconstitutional" was heroic, and, by contrast, the hurriedly sworn in new Chief Justice will be seen for what he is: a stooge of the men in uniform. If the constitution remains suspended for more than three months then Musharraf may be pushed aside by the army and a new strongman installed. Or it could be that the aim was limited to cleansing the Supreme Court and controlling the media. In which case a rigged January election becomes a certainty.

Whatever the case, Pakistan's long journey to the end of the night continues.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Guiliani's Phony Facts

This is one dangerous man: it's George Bush with brains
New York's former mayor Rudy Giuliani is living up to his reputation as someone who will do and say anything for power

Michael Tomasky in Washington
Monday November 5, 2007

People of Britain: congratulations are in order. You have now joined ferret owners, sidewalk artists, hot dog vendors, publicly funded attorneys for poor people, low-income community college students, museum curators, a couple of innocent black men shot dead by the police, the sections of the New York City charter governing rules of succession to the mayoralty and, of course, Hillary Clinton, as objects of Rudy Giuliani's demagoguery and wrath.
You may by now have heard the story. In a radio ad that his campaign prepared for New Hampshire voters, Giuliani tells listeners that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000 and goes on to say: "My chance of surviving cancer - and thank God I was cured of it - in the United States: 82%. My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England: only 44% under socialised medicine."

The numbers are false. The actual five-year survival rate in Britain is 74%, which is still lower than America's, but obviously high enough for the figure not to have constituted fodder for a campaign commercial. (Even the remaining, much smaller difference, is largely explained by more widespread screening in the US, which catches many more incidents of prostate cancer that are non-lethal).

It turned out that Giuliani's numbers were from a seven-year-old article in a conservative policy journal. The article was written by his own healthcare policy adviser, who admitted that his comparison was a "crude" interpretation of a study by a respected health policy group. The group, in turn, said the article's author had grossly misused its numbers.

That's about as red-handed as anyone in politics gets caught these days. But when asked if the campaign would continue to use the figure, a Giuliani spokeswoman said, "Yes, we will."

I know the form all too well. I covered Giuliani for a dozen years in New York (note to angry American rightwingers preparing to email me a warning to keep my foreign nose out of their business: I'm as American as a Ford F-150).

The man lies with staggering impunity. But here's the thing: he does it with such conviction and such seeming authority that people who are not inclined to study the matter will believe him - will in fact be utterly convinced that Giuliani is speaking the gospel truth, and they will prove almost impossible to shake from this conviction.

Giuliani's hypocrisy with regard to this ad doesn't end with the fake statistics. As Joe Conason noted on, Giuliani was at the time of his treatment the mayor of New York and enrolled in a nonprofit health maintenance organisation for government employees - that is, mini-socialised medicine. And as Ezra Klein noted on Comment is free, the treatment that saved Giuliani was developed in Denmark - which, as Klein drolly notes, "is both in Europe and has a universal healthcare system".

But none of this will stop Giuliani. He will say and do anything he feels he needs to say and do to get power.

Newspapers write that he was "liberal" on social issues in his mayoral days, as if his positions on abortion and immigration were matters of conviction. Nonsense. He took the positions he needed to take to be elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. (Although to grant him a speck of humanity, I'd guess that his pro-gay rights views were more or less genuine: anyone living in the city gets to know many gay people.)

And now he is saying and doing whatever he needs to say and do to get millions of rightwing Americans to support him. He recently told a meeting of social conservatives that his reliance on God "is at the core of who I am". As mayor he was known to attend mass almost never, he obviously cheated serially on the wife (wife No 2) he married in the Catholic church, and the only occasions on which I can remember him invoking God when he was mayor were the two times he was forced to say "so help me God" in taking the oath of office.

But forward he will charge, telling more lies with even more impunity. And immunity, because in a culture where a sense of history is largely limited to remembering certain stirring television images, he will for the most part get away with it, confident in the knowledge that the main thing most Americans will ever recall about him is the film clip of him running from the rubble of the World Trade Centre on September 11. A far smaller percentage will know that the reason he had run was because he had catastrophically decided to place his emergency command centre in the tower complex - the only building in New York that had previously been the target of a major terrorist attack.

And by the way: shame on Gordon Brown for inviting him to No 10 in September. Yes, there's a long tradition of presidents and prime ministers welcoming party standard-bearers from across the pond. But Giuliani isn't yet that. Brown had no business giving him the kind of special benefit that an audience with a prime minister bestows.

Brown and all of Britain will be better off the sooner they figure this out: Giuliani is a dangerous man. George Bush with brains. Dick Cheney with better aim. Consider yourself warned.

· Michael Tomasky is the editor of Guardian America

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