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A Writing Life: Time Is Not Always on Hollywood Scribes' Side--Neither Is Money

WRITERS' SETTLEMENT | NEWS ANALYSIS

Labor: As with athletes, screenwriters' careers are usually short. A long strike would have been devastating financially.

May 05, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"When millionaires get into a bankroll battle with billionaires, the millionaires lose."

That sentence began an Associated Press story in 1998. The dispute in question was between the National Basketball Assn. players' union and the league's owners.

Yet similar math and logic apply to negotiations pitting Hollywood writers and actors against the major companies that form the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers: The brevity of an average writer's career these days--as with an athlete--seriously skews the equation when pondering whether to settle or sacrifice.

During the NBA's work stoppage in 1998, player agent Norman Blass was quoted as saying, "The players have lost a half-year's salary. They'll never make that back."

The average professional athlete plays fewer than five years, so forgoing six months of income could easily amount to more than 10% of earning potential in their chosen field.

Though they might not have to worry about broken bones or torn anterior cruciate ligaments (carpal tunnel syndrome is probably a more realistic threat), writers and actors must increasingly recognize that they possess limited windows of opportunity to ply their trade.

For the great mass of writers, there is a very limited period when they are considered hot and marketable--a time in which they must matriculate from level to level if they dream of reaching the hallowed plateau that allows them to create and oversee their own series. And if they find themselves in their 40s without having attained that status, the game, as such, is often over.

As in sports, the rules don't apply quite the same way to superstars such as producer Aaron Spelling, still churning out shows at 78. That said, TV's most prominent and powerful writer-producers generally fall within a certain age range. David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal," "The Practice"), Writers Guild of America West President John Wells ("ER," "The West Wing") and Chris Carter ("The X-Files") are all in their mid-40s, and Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue"), Dick Wolf ("Law & Order") and David Chase ("The Sopranos") are in their 50s.

This age predicament was underscored last fall, when 28 screenwriters filed a class-action lawsuit accusing networks, studios and talent agencies of a pattern of ageism--driven by the emphasis on reaching youthful audiences--that has effectively kept older writers from getting hired.

According to a WGA report, nearly three-quarters of the guild's writers age 30 or younger were working in 1997, compared with less than a third of those in their 50s.

Whether younger writers consciously embrace such data, simply looking around writing rooms at their peers should reinforce that the clock is ticking on their careers. The same holds true for actors, who can audition for the role of Felicity or Dawson only so many times before they must grapple with finding a supporting role as their parents or grandparents.

Giving up nearly half a season, then, as the Writers Guild did in its last strike in 1988, potentially represents an inordinate percentage of a writer's or actor's career if he or she happens to be working--certainly more than would be true for a lawyer or accountant. And although receiving higher residuals (that is, the payments garnered when programs or films are rerun) becomes more important later, it's hard to take a long-term view when there are mortgages to pay right now.

Andy Hill, who played on three national championship basketball teams at UCLA before embarking on a show business career that included a stint as president of CBS Productions, also sees the parallels between writing and professional sports.

"Just like the athletes, you'll never get back the time you lost doing what you do," said Hill, whose recent book, "Be Quick--But Don't Hurry," details how lessons he learned from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden apply to other aspects of life.

Though he has sympathy for writers, Hill suggested that creative guilds are invariably overmatched--as are players' unions--when sitting across a bargaining table from management.

"At the end of the day, the artist never has leverage in a negotiation with a businessman because it's a business," he said. "What writers do best is write. . . . You want to do it too badly to ever have the upper hand in a negotiation, and the other side knows it."

On the plus side, both athletes and Hollywood's creative artists are lavishly compensated during the peak of their careers and, if prudent, can do well enough in a short span of time to coast for years. Still, they also live against a backdrop of constant uncertainty, with promising rookies always looking for a chance to break through.

Against that backdrop, the panic associated with talk of a strike is easy to understand. The race, after all, is more sprint than marathon, making anything that might even temporarily slow one's momentum far more than just a bump in the road.

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