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'Strike Proof'--a Spec Script in the Works

March 11, 2001|ROBERT MASELLO | Robert Masello is a TV writer and author. His most recent book is "A Friend in the Business: Honest Advice for Anyone Trying to Break into Television Writing (Penguin/Putnam, 2000)

I read in the newspaper that the talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood studios have reached an impasse, and that the threat of a writers' strike now looms larger than ever.

As a TV writer and a member of the guild for the past six years, I have taken several steps to minimize the impact of any work stoppage on my own life, to render myself, as it were, "strike-proof." As a public service to my fellow TV and screen scribes, I'd like to outline some of these important, and timely, survival techniques.

* The worst part of any strike, and the most painful, is the loss of income. Even when I was working at my first jobs, on some truly dreadful syndicated shows, my salary was more than $3,000 a week, and most TV writers, and many screenwriters, earn far more than that--when they're employed. But that's mistake No. 1! If you're raking in that kind of money, you'll miss it when it's gone. Almost a year ago, when I first heard about the possibility of a strike occurring, I presciently weaned myself from the income stream. Removing myself from the labor pool was easy. All I had to do was finish up the season on the show where I was executive story editor (a clever and cutting-edge program, justly celebrated for its Shavian wit and broadcast every Wednesday night on the WB) and then wait by the phone to see if my contract was renewed. I'm still waiting!

* My next step was even bolder and more imaginative. Just to ensure I wasn't gainfully employed again, I redid my resume, only this time I added the year that I'd graduated from college. Even the most boneheaded producers would be able to calculate from that base number. If I graduated from college in 1974, and I was roughly 21 years old at that time, then a few simple swipes at the desktop calculator would yield a present age of . . . 48! Could that, they would wonder, even be possible? Someone from the well of the previous century, still foraging the land, standing in line at Kinko's, holding a valid driver's license? Hah--once that news got out, job opportunities would vaporize like meteors hitting the atmosphere!

* I left the house, several times, without my baseball cap on. As anyone in L.A. knows, the baseball cap is the official headgear of the TV and screenwriter, worn less to ward off the rays of the California sun than to conceal the incipient bald spot caused by (a) aging and (b) being hit there so many times by studio execs and show-runners who don't understand why your script can't conform to the unspoken, inchoate ideas rattling around in their heads--ideas they could write better themselves if they just weren't so darn busy! To the best of my knowledge, I was spotted hatless only twice, once at the Brentwood Country Mart and once at, yes, Kinko's, by industry types whose gasps I could hear even over the rumble of the espresso machine and copier.

* With a strike in the offing, I foresaw that there would be a run on poster board, Magic Markers, plywood slats, etc., and I stocked up early! Smug though this may sound, I've already got my first placard made up and waiting in the garage. In bold red letters, it reads, "NOT WORKING--WITH DIGNITY!" It's the dignity part I'm most proud of--I've been fairly idle and living without any dignity for months, but once a strike happens, I'll instantly have my self-esteem back! When friends ask me what I'm up to, I won't have to hem and haw and talk about the novel that is accreting in my office like a snowball (with just as much sales potential). I'll be able to say, and proudly, "Hey, I can't work! We're on strike, or haven't you been getting out much lately?"

* Finally, I've been forging an alternative income strategy. With all of those tired, hungry writers marching up and down with me in front of the fabled Paramount gates, I figure there'll be a ready market for my homemade, foil-wrapped chocolates. I'm calling them "Guilders"--get it?--and whenever I see a writer flagging, whenever I see his or her poster dipping toward the sidewalk, I'll offer a quick, sugary pick-me-up. (Needless to say, the candies will be inexpensively priced.) And if the Guilders don't catch on, I'm working on locking up the local Rogaine franchise.

If you see me on the picket line--the re-dignified, middle-aged guy, the guy hawking chocolates and strutting his stuff without a baseball cap on--honk. As our strike demands make clear, we writers live not for money, but for recognition!

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