The last three weeks of picketing and chanting in Hollywood has had a certain period charm. As it turns out, writers dress a lot like steelworkers. When the writers and producers resume talks Nov. 26 to try to end a strike that has shut down hit shows like Grey's Anatomy and 30 Rock and big-budget movies like The Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons, the major sticking point will be pay for work distributed via new media. Such a contemporary issue calls for updating strike techniques.
That's what a handful of Writers Guild of America strikers were doing the day before Thanksgiving in a Spanish home belonging to actor-writer-director Kamala Lopez in Los Angeles' Hancock Park neighborhood. At Lopez' dining room table, Factory Girl director George Hickenlooper, TV writer Jill Kushner and actor-writer Joel Marshall were editing dozens of short black and white public service announcements featuring actors like Holly Hunter, Sean Penn, Laura Linney, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jenna Elfman, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Benjamin, Ed Asner, David Schwimmer and the cast of Ugly Betty. Each of the 15-second to four-minute spots, which can be seen on deadlinehollywooddaily.com over the weekend and on speechlesswithoutwriters.com as of Nov. 26, is a riff on the theme "speechless." Hunter discovers her script has been outsourced to India; Linney tries to overcome her writer-less life with a 12-step meeting and a box of cards from the "Scene It?" trivia game; Penn mouths words the audience can't hear; Clarkson and Amy Ryan deliver an impassioned reading of the phone book. Woody Allen, Maggie Gyllenhaal and John Waters are all scheduled to shoot their own "speechless" PSAs in coming days. Crash director Paul Haggis just shot a spot with Moore.
The idea for the campaign occurred to Hickenlooper and writer Alan Sereboff on the first day of the labor stoppage. "Our initial intention was to bring awareness to the importance of writing in the creative process," says Hickenlooper. But putting together the project with borrowed equipment and writers serving in a range of unfamiliar jobs such as grips and publicists has been a lesson to the writers in the possibilities of studio-free Internet distribution. "The Internet is the future of all entertainment," says Hickenlooper. "We're happy to take advantage of it with or without the involvement of these conglomerates."
Other striking writers have gotten out the scribes' side of the story in blogs and Youtube videos. Daily Show writer Jason Ross delivers an update from the New York City picket lines in the Comedy Central show's signature faux news style, conceding the producers' point that it's hard to measure the value of online content: "Online, intrinsic worth is measured in things like number of tears shed over Britney Spears by a heartbreakingly gay teenager," Ross says, before he is interrupted with a note that Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, is suing Youtube for $1 billion for using its content online. After a news clip featuring Viacom head Sumner Redstone, Ross explains, "When you're not paying him, you owe him $1 billion. When he's not paying you, he's not paying you."
David Letterman's writers are delivering strike-related jokes and photos to the late night humor-starved on lateshowwritersonstrike.com. "The collateral damage from the strike keeps building," says one would-be monologue entry from writer Bill Scheft. "Yesterday on the picket line, the writers chanted 'Hey, hey, ho, ho...' and Don Imus got fired again."
The WGA itself has released a more straight-forward explainer video called "Why We Fight" about the issue of residual payments. So far, the producers have opted not to make their case online. But a shirtless guy named "GhostCow" has issued a Youtube rebuttal to the "Why We Fight" video that has been viewed about 9,000 times. The irritated GhostCow tells the writers, "You're just being a bunch of greedy bastards!" GhostCow does not, however, have any really good lines.