I’m happy to report that I saw a lot more movies this year than I did last year, and found many of them more than worthy of my time and attention. Grindhouse. The Bourne Ultimatum. Black Snake Moan. Ratatouille. 3:10 to Yuma. Rescue Dawn. Waitress. And I haven’t even gotten to this year’s crop of Oscar-bait—most of which I’ve written off seeing, sadly, because of the new baby keeping me at home. Call her Awards Season Baby, and she’d like to thank the studios for the select assortment of screeners that have shown up on our doorstep.
Normally the arrival of these screeners are a cause for unmitigated celebration. But not this year. See, my little one would rather you call her Strike Baby. Her mama gets those screeners because she’s a proud member of the Writers’ Guild of America, East. Strike Baby made her debut in the world just 10 days after my colleagues and I put our pens down in protest of the AMPTP’s refusal to negotiate a fair contract.
If I were still blogging about the industry, I’d be having a field day. The WGA strike is one of the greatest media stories to emerge in recent years. Just ask Nikki Finke. But I quit my media biz job because I made a deal to adapt a book for Lifetime. My first movie, SPEAK, debuted at Sundance way back in 2004, and until I got the call in late 2006 that Lifetime bought my pitch, my screenwriting career had been as cold and dark as Nick Counter’s heart.
The $68,000 I got for SPEAK (the minimum for purchase + rewrite + polish, less fees to my agent and lawyer) seemed like a lot of money at the time. But it’s not, really. I worked on it from 1999-2003, and then didn’t see another check for writing until 2007. $68K over eight years… well, maybe the DVD residuals would make up for it. Scratch that. I’d have to see checks a lot bigger than $14.07 to quit my day job. Most of the rank and file WGA membership is like me. Take all 12,000 of us, and the average annual salary is only $5,000. Thank goodness I could find other work.
I started working on my adaptation in March of 2007, and my agent and manager parlayed my small success into my best pitching summer ever. For the first time, I could envision making a living as a screenwriter. My ideas were meeting with favor, and doors were opening. The last thing I needed was for that momentum to be interrupted.
Yet, when asked if I would vote “yes” to authorize a strike, I didn’t hesitate. I knew that I was jeopardizing my chance to see a second movie make it on the air. I knew that I was voting for something that might end my career. Many young writers like me never recovered after the strike in 1988 . I didn’t hesitate for one reason, and one reason alone: my daughter.
New Media Baby’s movie memories are going to be much different than those of her mother and father. During one blissful month when we had HBO, my brother and I taped Raiders of the Lost Ark, and we watched it over and over and over again. We didn’t get sick of it because we didn’t have alternatives. It was what we watched when we wanted to watch a movie. My husband, when he was young, saw Smokey and the Bandit 72 times because that’s what was playing at the nearby movie theater. It wasn’t a love for the thespian stylings of Burt Reynolds that kept him coming back. Like me and my brother, his options were limited.
That’s not the case anymore, is it? Today, if I want to watch a movie, I have so many options. What’s on TV? What’s on TiVo? What came from Netflix? What’s onscreen at one of the nearby multiplexes? What’s On Demand? What’s on the Internet? What’s in my personal DVD library? What’s at Blockbuster? By the time I figure out where I want my media to come from, it’s practically time for bed.
My daughter’s future is now. If she learns a movie by heart, it’ll be by choice, not by default. She’ll have the luxury to cultivate truly personal tastes, because she’ll have access to everything—most likely for free, thanks to advertising. The media conglomerates will be falling all over themselves to push content to her, to make her fall in love with what they have to offer. They’ll have to, if they want to wrest her attention away from all the books in the library I’ve already built for her.
There are no more captive audiences. It’s a consumer’s world, and everybody knows it. And I certainly hope that something I write becomes someone’s favorite movie, whether they pay to see it or whether they watched it online for free. But that’s not me saying that I’ll give it away for free, not by a long shot.
Thankfully it’s not my job to figure out how the Viacoms and the Newscorps of the world are supposed to make a profit online. My job is to put pen to paper, and hope that a story I dream up or a book I adapt lights a fire in someone. All I’m asking is for a fair wage for the work that I do. If there’s enough money to pay the CEOs their salary, there’s enough money to grant me residuals that will help me make it through the lean times. After all, if that check for $14.07 turns into a check for $28.14 (we are paid $0.04 whenever someone buys a DVD; we would like $0.08), then that’s worth a walk to the bank, isn’t it?
Maybe I’m living in a fool’s paradise to want to make a living writing for film and television. I realize I’m lucky to have made it this far. But I’ve gotten enough encouragement from the fans of SPEAK to think that I might have a knack for entertainment. That keeps me going, and hoping, and trying. And writing—for the day when my daughter will be flipping through the millions of channels only to come to a sudden stop and say, “Shut up so I can watch, you guys. My mom wrote this movie.”
Annie Young Frisbie blogs at Reading is my Superpower. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens with her husband John Frisbie and her preternaturally brilliant daughter Bea.