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Writers Set to Strike over DVD, Download Profits

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Writers Set to Strike over DVD, Download Profits


Writers Set to Strike over DVD, Download Profits

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The Writers Guild of American says its 12,000 members will go on strike Monday. The writers want to be paid more when their movies or shows are sold as DVDs and Internet downloads. The studios say they don't make money from downloads yet, that they need to profit from DVDs to offset huge production costs.

Studios believe they have a stronger hand than they did during the 1988 writers' strike because they're now owned by large media conglomerates and broadcast many so-called reality shows where the writing is nominal. But a strike could obliterate next February's sweeps period when networks try to increase ratings to set higher ad rates.

Terry Curtis Fox is a playwright and screenwriter, a former board member of the Writers Guild. He began his television career as story editor for "Hill Street Blues." He's also worked on "Diagnosis Murder," "Stargate SG-1," "The Marshal." He joins us from Asheville, North Carolina, where he teaches screenwriting at Western Carolina University.

Thanks for being with us, Mr. Fox.

Professor TERRY CURTIS FOX (Playwright; Screenwriter; Former Board Member, Writers Guild of America; Associate Professor, Screenwriting, Western Carolina University): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Explain to us how significant residuals are to a screenwriter.

Prof. FOX: Enormously significant. They're what middle-class writers used to exist. One of the members of the negotiating committee, Marc Cherry, was at the point where had he not received residuals, he would have had to sell his house and get out of the business. Instead, having residuals, he sat down and wrote "Desperate Housewives." That's what residuals allow you to do.

SIMON: If a strike begins, what shows will be hit first, David Letterman's monologues?

Prof. FOX: David Letterman, John Stewart. You can take John Stewart off your TiVo list. Those guys write to the news, which means that they are written the day of the show, that's done.

As far as scripted TV shows, you know, your series, dramatic and comedy shows, those have a lead time probably of six, maybe eight weeks. So you won't see that effect immediately, although you'll see it fairly soon.

In theaters, you're talking a year to 18 months lead time, so the effects of the strike doesn't happen on the screens until then, although, of course, the ripple will be felt in the industry much before that.

SIMON: Studios say they're better prepared to withstand the strike than they were 20 years ago. What about the writers?

Prof. FOX: The writers right now, in part because of what we see as fumbling by the management negotiating team, are probably stronger than we've been certainly in the last 15 years. When the producers put on a proposal that would significantly change residuals to a profit-based system, it snaps the Writers Guild into solidarity.

SIMON: If there is a strike, what would it be like to go into some Hollywood hangout, I mean, a little bit like going into a bar in an old coal-mining town during a miners strike?

Prof. FOX: The Hollywood hangouts are among the first to suffer. There will be restaurants that are half-empty, quarter-full, half-full. That does mean that there will be people who aren't going to lose work will have no substantial interest to the strike. That is one of the effects that it has and it has a ripple effect to the L.A. economy, and there's no getting away from that.

What it means when you're home is that the phone doesn't ring. And I know some writers who are actually very fond of the fact that they get uninterrupted time. The town is just a lot calmer and it's also, of course, a lot on the edge. You constantly get people coming up to you and saying, so what's going on?

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FOX: The best words you can possibly get is they're at the table talking and no one knows, because when people are at the tables talking and not speaking to the press, that means they're really talking to each other, hammering out the deal.

SIMON: That's screenwriter and playwright Terry Curtis Fox, speaking with us from North Carolina, of course, he usually works out of Hollywood.

And you're listening to NPR News.

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