From the Front Lines

Writer-director Terry George, a Pleasantville resident, is a natural-born screenwriter: His first produced script, In the Name of the Father, earned him an Academy Award nomination. He’s perhaps best known for having written and directed Hotel Rwanda with Don Cheadle, and his newest film, Reservation Road starring Mark Ruffalo and Joaquin Phoenix, is currently in theaters.

Now, George has tossed his pen aside and has taken up a bullhorn for his new role, one that is not so coveted: He volunteered to serve on the 2007 Writers Guild MBA Negotiating Committee. He talked to us, in his soothing Irish accent, about what it means to be on strike.

Q: What is the mood of the striking writers?
A: They basically all know what the strike’s about, and that it’s the fundamental issue facing our industry. It’s about the Internet and new media, which is where most of the new work will migrate to in the future.

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For many, striking is a new phenomenon. The last strike was in 1988, so other than a few veterans, not many people were around for it. There’s been a flurry of activity. We had very strong picket lines in New York and LA.

But many writers are fearful. Unlike some people believe, writers are not extremely rich or not even rich at all. The future doesn’t look so rosy for them. Ultimately, the nature of the work is that you can be out of a job very quickly, so many are afraid they might be unemployed in the aftermath.

Q: How do writers pay the bills when they’re on strike?
A: You live on whatever you’ve saved up. They’ve also set up a strike fund for people who don’t make as much. Sometimes people get other jobs if they can get them.

Q: Were you doing any picketing?
A: I was out all last week. I was picketing at Fox, NBC, and Time Warner.

Q: What’s that like on a day-to-day basis?
A: You get to meet people. I mostly write for features, so I don’t get to talk to the TV people very often. There’s a good interaction. As the weeks drag on, it might get more tedious. Unlike the stagehands union, we’re not able to close down the industry right away. We’re hoping for solidarity with other workers. That makes it more difficult.

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Q: What has the response been like from people on the street?
A: Very good! Most people know what we’re working for and are behind it. There are a couple of anti-union people who say, “I hope you get fired,” or “You’re already rich,” so you get a mix, but mostly there is big support from people who know that without it, we’ll just be wage slaves for the studios who turn what we do into what I call the Frank Perdue treatment. They’ll repackage our shows onto the Internet and into webisodes and little DVD box sets and every other kind of permutation they can think of to make money, and increasingly we’ll be cut out of it.

Q: Did you have any projects that had to be put on hold because of the strike?
A: There was a film I was working on with Spike Lee. I was going to do a rewrite of it and that’s stopped. I was also going to do a film in Brazil.

Q: Is that frustrating?
A: I suppose it is, but it’s more important to me to fight this fight. When I see the sacrifice that some TV people have made—some showrunners and writer-directors have walked off the set and received legal letters, and they really might lose their jobs—people taking that kind of a risk make the delay of my projects in development seem trivial.

Q: How have the negotiations gone?
A: It’s frustrating because the other side is not willing to negotiate at all. They never for a moment brought up the Internet except to say no. It was not a negotiation. It was more of a diatribe about what they wouldn’t do. It was basically a monologue instead of a dialogue. I found that quite strange

Q: Is this going to take a while?
A; I hope not. We’re perfectly willing to start negotiating again, so long as they come to us with a reasonable proposal.

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