Howard Rodman is professor and former chair of the writing division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts; a member of the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, West; and an artistic director of the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Labs. His films include Savage Grace, August, and Joe Gould’s Secret.
Let’s start with what everyone who’s not in bed with the media conglomerates knows: that the strike was among the most successful ever in Guild history– In terms of solidarity, in terms of impact, in terms of energizing and engaging the membership, but mostly, in terms of What Was Won.
First and foremost, the Guild got jurisdiction over new media. Anyone who doesn’t understand how central that is still gets out of bed to change the channel. (I often recall the picket-line stroller carrying a tot with the sign, “It’s Old Media to me.”)
I would add to this the fact that in new media (which is to say, going forward: media) we base our residuals on distributor’s gross rather than producer’s gross. (These concepts have always been somewhat arcane, so let me just put it this way: producer’s gross is what’s left after the casino takes its 80% skim.)
There are many other advances, but to me, these are the ones that allow writers to have a future.
As long as John McLean and Peter Bart are indulging in revisionist history, let’s give praise where praise is due, because in ways that are insufficiently acknowledged, the true lion’s share of the credit for last year’s fine contract belongs to one of those gentlemen.
It was during the 2004 negotiations that our then-Executive Director John McLean negotiated against his own Guild — far more than he was willing to negotiate against his old pals in the conglomerates. Again and again he maintained we’d be “laughed out of the room” if we asked for the things we asked for — and in many cases won — in last year’s contract.
During some of the dismal, dispiriting, and astonishingly long Negotiating Committee meetings, some of us began to pass notes. And to hum, under our breath, “Which Side Are You On.”
So we organized; we ran for office (something none of us wanted to do); we worked hard to build a more truly democratic union; in 2005 we brought in a new Executive Director who, in the boardroom, would rather advocate the needs of writers than bluster against them. Most importantly: we realized that the strength of the Guild derived from the engagement and imagination of its members.
We realized that our only leverage against the media conglomerates was a credible strike threat; and once on strike, we held together far better and longer than anyone could have anticipated. Additionally: our wildly creative members found ways of framing the issues that cut through the pro-conglomerate bias of the traditional media.
At the end of the day, we didn’t get all we wanted, but we got what we needed — in terms of the contract, and in terms of remembering something that we’d forgotten: that the Writers Guild is not, first and foremost, a building on West Third, but rather a guild of writers.
And so let’s set the record straight: all of the our new-found solidarity, all of the spirited engagement of our members, all of the gains of last year’s contract — and especially the Guild’s jurisdiction over New Media — might not have happened without the thought and example of John McLean.