November 20, 2007
POP CULTURE: Valuing the Writers
In light of the writers' strike, Jonathan Last asks why the writers don't get paid more simply by operation of the market:
Writers make a lot less money in comparison to directors and actors than they used to. And the less money you make on a project, the less control you can exert over the creative process.
And I think it's safe to argue that, in general, the more control writers have on a project, the better it generally turns out. (By better, I mean both commercially and artistically.)
The importance of writers in TV is, I think, self-evident. They trump everyone else (except the showrunner, but on good shows, the showrunner is normally a writer, too) in terms of their contributions to the success or failure of the finished product. . .
Actors are quarterbacks, directors are running backs, and writers are offensive linemen. That's about how they contribute to the product, and how they're paid. And just like it was a welcome change when left tackles finally started being compensated more closely to their value a few years back, I think we should be happy to see writers moved a tiny bit closer to their real value.
His whole post is worth reading...the analogy isn't perfect in terms of market structure: writers have more of a free market than NFL linemen had pre-free-agency, but as Last notes in the comments, the market they have is not the most effective one, given the stranglehold a handful of consumers (i.e., network heads) have on the decision to hire them.
As Last notes, writers bring a large marginal value to the table: it's far more common to see TV shows fail for bad writing than for bad acting, so improving the writing can dramatically improve the expected return on investment on a show (unless the show's concept is so bad as to be beyond salvage by any writer). That's partly a function of an inefficient market (i.e., inability to identify the best writers, as compared to a relatively efficient market for locating good actors), possibly partly a scarcity-of-quality issue, and partly that - unlike novelists or movie writers - TV writers are signed in advance of turning out multiple stories, so the network heads may not want to pay in advance without assurances that a given writer will produce consistently good work.
The problem with writers not getting their due in terms of their marginal value to the projects they work on is, I would guess, the combination of the first and third points: networks don't have - or don't feel they have - a really good system for telling the difference between good and bad writers, and lack confidence that today's good writer will continue to churn out quality tomorrow. At least, that's my speculation. Because if the networks really did believe they could measure the difference between good writers and bad ones there would be a very big marginal investment return to be made by expanding your writing budget to snag the best ones.
"...lack confidence that today's good writer will continue to churn out quality tomorrow."
I think that's the crux of the matter. It's easier for actors and directors to maintain a consistent level of quality because their medium is visual and aural, and you can employ tricks to cover any deficiencies. A writer's medium is straight verbiage, specific and literal, with nowhere to hide if the dialogue sucks, or the characterizations are weak, or the story is simplistic.
I think the real issue is that a writer is closer to the art than the director is. And I can tell you, art for art's sake is very real. I remember getting yelled at by my grandfather for drawing when I wasn't supposed to. You create because you have to, not because you want to. A good director is a manager of many different tasks. An actor gets lots of press, and you know a bad one, but without that writer to give them their words, they ain't nuthin'. No writers are underpaid because they will write for nothing because they have no choice, and the money people, who care little for anything without presidents on them don't care.
If the studios don't think they can consistently identify the writers who will do the best work in the future, and they think the marketing value of those (other than the Aaron Sorkins and David Chases and Larry Davids who run shows and become celebrities) who have done the best work in the past is limited, they probably feel the best approach is to screw all the writers to hold down costs, and hope they luch out in finding the good ones.
I think the explanation is very simple. There are way too many people who want to be writers. Look at Saturday Night Live. There are probably fifteen writers in the stable, each competing every week for a slot for their sketch. They're too busy trying to keep a job to ask for a raise.
There are lots of people who write well enough for television. There are, however, a very limited number of shows. It's like sports management. There are tons of MBAs who want to work in a front office, but very few opportunities. That's why the jobs pay so poorly.
I think of Bob Denver who got paid generously for probably 4 hours of work in making each Gilligan's Island episode; but other people continue to make money off that work to this day.
Did he get ripped off? Well - he never did more than the four hours of work. If you help build someone's factory, and they make money off the factory for the next forty years, you wouldn't expect a piece of the revenues.
But Gilligan's - I mean Bob's - identity was tied so closely to those shows that the reruns had serious ramifications on his career - both positive and negative. Who's to say whether he would have got all those choice cameos on the Love Boat if he wasn't so well known?
The writers are fighting over similar issues today - claiming they should get paid for each appearance of their work, regardless of the medium.
The free market solution is that good writers can negotiate a piece of the revenues when the demand for their services allows such. And if the studio execs won't give it to them, they can take their talents elsewhere.
Well the studio execs will have the lawyers and the resources to outsmart and bully the writers. And there will always be another writer to replace the writer, because its everyone's dream to write for television, right?
I don't buy it. If you're good enough and your skills are proven, you will be able to negotiate as much of the revenue as you want -- though you will always be risking it will be a flop, so you may want to take a safe salary. Plus, today there are more buyers of quality script writing than ever before.
Granted, there will always be Gilligan's who write masterpieces (I know that reference doesn't quite work there) and give it away - but he or she should be able to make it up on the next work. And as Darryl says, the writer is fulfulling and sharing his passion even on the giveaway.
Though I am not opposed to the union -- its also a part of the free market (though some may claim its corrupts the market similar to a monopoly or collusion); the writers are just negotiating as a group rather than as individuals. But I feel no moral obligation to support it -- if they succeed, more power to them, if not, look for future Gilligans.
David, here I have to disagree. You can have 100 writers, as long as they are talented ones. Here are some examples:
1. Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Buck Henry, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolikin. (Your Show of Shows). Please make me a fly on the wall.
2. John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones. I would hire them for Tudor jobs, regular jobs, lupin only florists, and they could make a Thanksgiving only feat with Spam and I would love it.
3. Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Ayckroyd, and I forgot who else.
4. Mike Myers, Billy Crystal, and the rest.
SNL was probably the wrong example. Same with the Daily Show. However, I do agree with movie scripts. When you see credit as generally more than two writers, with the "and" in the weird place, it's generally going to be hack work. Except for Ramis, Kenney, Miller (Animal House), and Abrahams Zucker, Zucker (Airplane!).
Actually, the top writers, who do get a hit or two will, in the movies, make a couple of million per script. It's like the actors really. The stars make a bundle while the regulars make a living.
BTW, did you know that Get Smart was the only show in history where the writers (Mel Brooks and Buck Henry) got top billing? Also, Don Adams decided to take a percentage instead of a low salary--his career was taking off and couldn't afford a pay cut if the show didn't work out. That meant he was no longer working for a living.
Its like scouts and talent evaluators in baseball. One would think that anyone who consistently could identify talent would be very well paid and teams would compete for their services. Perhaps its the point you make about consistency.