Well-informed survey of film and TV writers’ decadeslong battle to defend their economic and creative interests.
Banks (Visual and Media Arts/Emerson Coll.; co-editor: Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries, 2009) focuses on the business rather than the art of screenwriting, which makes sense since the principal concession the fledgling Screen Writers Guild made in its initial 1942 contract was the acknowledgment that the movie studios owned its members’ scripts and had final control over them. The SWG traded ownership for the right to determine screenwriting credits, a matter of vital importance to writers whose salaries and employability depended on their credits. Banks follows the union through the ugly blacklist period, when the SWG failed to protect its subpoenaed members and acquiesced to the establishment of loyalty oaths, and through the radical changes wrought by the rise of television, which resulted in 1954 in the merger of the SWG with the Television Writers Association to form the Writers Guild of America. TV writers’ concerns came to dominate the guild as movie production declined in the 1950s; a strike in 1960 established the principle of writers’ royalties on reruns and films sold to television. The thorny issue of “hyphenates” sunk several strikes in the 1970s and ’80s, when TV writer-directors (now often called showrunners) crossed picket lines and failed to support the guild in its efforts to get fairer compensation for videocassette sales from the aggressive, increasingly corporate studios. The guild learned its lesson; new leadership in 2005 organized more effectively and persuaded the hyphenates to join the 2007-2008 strike, which wrested compensation for digital distribution (streaming, iTunes, YouTube) from the reluctant producers. Despite a few academic tics (“This chapter explores”; “The next chapters will explore”), Banks writes lucidly about complex financial and technical issues, giving a solid, unromantic sense of working writers’ lives.
An interesting case study of the impact of evolving technologies and distribution methods on a labor union’s priorities and strategies.