Inside the WGA: Even at $400K a Week, a Million Insecurities

For about 500 Writers Guild of America members at the top of the heap, life is very, very good.

Some of the so-called A-list writers make more than $5 million a year, $400,000 a week for a rewrite of a film in trouble, but for every Paul Haggis and for every Tina Fey there are thousands of writers you will never hear of. In fact, almost half of the West Coast members of the WGA are not working as writers in any given year, strike or no strike. Writing jobs are hard to get and even harder to keep.

Craig Mazin is one of the lucky ones. His screenplay credits include "Rocketman" and "Scary Movie 3 and 4." In fact he's directing his own screenplay — "Superhero!" — right now and work on his set continued Monday despite the strike. "Compared to other unions like the autoworkers we're very different. People make wildly different amounts of money in ours," he said.

Mazin, 36, has been on the WGA's board of directors and runs a Web site with fellow screenwriter Ted Elliott ("Pirates of the Caribbean") that has become the place on the Internet for screenwriters to vent on the issues. Artfulwriter.com is getting 5,000 visits a day.

The last writers strike in 1988 lasted 22 weeks and, according to Mazin, was a failed one for the WGA. He claims its wounds have taken decades to heal.

"We're a young membership. Over half of the writers in the Writers Guild now didn't walk the picket lines in '88." And he says this strike is all about their future. "We are fighting for security. We have no choice. You don't light yourself on fire unless you know if you don't, you're just going to continue to be pushed around and picked on."

In Hollywood writers have traditionally felt pushed around and picked on and not without reason. "The odds are someone who works at Sears is going to have a job longer than a film or TV writer," said Steve Young. "In fact every day this strike lasts lots of writers are going to lose their opportunities to work in TV or film again." Young wrote for TV shows — "Boy Meets World" and "Cybill" to name two.

"There's a belief in Hollywood that at 28 the brain starts to die and you're no longer funny or hip. If you're waiting for the phone to ring when the strike is over, it may not. A writer is like an NFL running back, it's a short career," Young added.

He moved from Los Angeles to Philadelphia just two weeks ago, he says, partly because a writers strike meant he wouldn't need to be there. But long before that he discovered that making a living from writing isn't only about scripts.

"A story can be a book, a magazine article, a play. Writers can do other things with their ideas beyond scripts, "he said. "A lot of writers are going to find out they're going to have to branch out."

Writers Want a Piece of New Media Profits

And this strike may be different for the Writers Guild members from the last one 19 years ago. When they weren't walking the picket lines then, many were crafting original scripts to shop around when the strike was over. This time their pencils may really be down. Television, especially, is no longer the giant cash dispenser it once was. Some writers may even be showing up at Sears, not to shop but to look for work.

The average yearly income for a working writer is high — about $200,000 — and there are those who choose to live as if that's a permanent lifestyle.

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