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

Hollywood writers can make as much $5M a year, but careers are often short.

February 18, 2009, 11:44 PM

Nov. 6, 2007 — -- 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. 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."

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.

"Writers are trafficking in their own daydreams for a living. But some who get on a sitcom for three or four years may think they're going to be able to live on that kind of income for the rest of their lives and that's a mistake," said screenwriter and UCLA professor Richard Walter.

"Back when 'The Cosby Show' was the No. 1 show on TV, one in every four families in the country watched it," said Walter, "Now the highest-rated show is only seen by half as many." Writers' work, he explained, appears on many more outlets today such as cable channels, DVDs and The Internet so the revenue pie is cut into many more pieces than before.

And that is what this strike is all about — the new technologies that writers want to be sure they are going to be included in as profit sharers. They want residual payments for when their work appears on all media, old and new.

"Residuals only started in 1962. The writers for 'I Love Lucy' in the '50s which has been shown on television ever since never got an extra dime," said Walter, making the point that the writers have had to work hard to gain what they have.

With this strike the union has shown that it is resolved to fight this time. Walter was at the strike meeting last week attended by thousands of WGA members. It reminded him of a line from the movie "Network."

"I thought to myself this is us saying, 'we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.'"

But it's a resolve tempered by realism. "We're all starting in the same place together. I hope we all finish in the same place, too," said Mazin, but then he mentioned the two words that scare him the most — "American Idol, a reality show with no union writers.

While the writers are not working there will be other options on television and elsewhere, and for the writer of "Scary Movie" this is a scary thought. In fact after the last strike in '88 nearly 10 percent of Americans failed to tune back in to network TV.

"Writers provide a beloved service," Mazin said, "not an essential one."

Young was even more tongue in cheek. "One of the things I liked most about being a writer was that there was fresh fruit every day in my office," he said. "One of the lessons I learned as a writer was that fruit is perishable."

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