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Monday, November 12, 2007

There's a battle of analogies going on in the media. What are residuals like? The answer depends on whether you think writers deserve to get paid every time a show they wrote airs, or not.

Studio mogul Lew Wasserman said, "When a plumber fixes my toilet, I don't pay him every time I flush." Which tells you about what he thought of writers. (In his previous incarnation, as agent mogul Lew Wasserman, I imagine he'd be kicking himself he hadn't thought of asking for residuals for his clients.)

But writers aren't plumbers fixing toilets. A plumber fixes only one toilet. You can't spread his "fix" to millions of toilets around the world. So it's a dumb, not to say insulting metaphor.

The analogies we writers prefer are authors and songwriters. An author gets a royalty every time someone buys his book. Also when his book is translated into another language or sold in another country. Also when it's excerpted in a national magazine. Also when his book is downloaded as an e-book.

A songwriter gets paid every time someone buys a record. Also every time her song airs. Also, every time her song is downloaded.

That seems fair.

(Craig has a kind of silly analogy involving a magic cake, but it just made me hungry, so forget it.)

Of course, in any battle over money, you don't get what's fair, you get what you can negotiate for. Moral arguments aside, why should writers get residuals?

Because otherwise the studios would have to pay a higher upfront fee. If writers never got residuals, they'd have to ask for more money on completion of their script. That's how it works in Canada. I've never got a residual. We get paid for our script, and then when the show shoots, we get paid another chunk of money called a "production fee" that can amount to more than the script fee; it is explicitly set against any residuals we might be due. It's a percentage of budget.

Which is more efficient? Pay more money up front, all the time, regardless whether the show is ever even distributed? Or pay a small amount every time the show re-airs, or is downloaded, or printed onto a DVD? In the latter case, writers who create successful shows make a lot of money, but there's a lot of money to pay them with. If the show airs once and then no one wants to see it again, the writer doesn't get any more money.

The writer is effectively invested in the success of his show.

The way it works here, you don't benefit from your successes directly. You never see another dime from a hit show. You benefit, of course, but you get paid on your next show where you can demand a higher rate. Which is inefficient, because your next show may be a flop.

One could make an argument that sending around a lot of one-dollar checks is inefficient, too, but as more distribution moves onto the Internet, it becomes trivial to track shows and pay writers. Sold a download of my show? Throw a penny in my PayPal account. No muss, no fuss, no bother.

Fair is also efficient.

I hope the studios don't seriously want to go back to the days where Solomon Linda created "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," sold all rights for $50 and never saw another penny. That was not only bad for Solomon Linda. It was bad for the recording companies. America lost out on the Solomon Linda "Lion Sleeps" Tour. The world missed out on "Solomon Linda Sings Broadway." Because Solomon Linda was too busy, and too poor, singing his heart out for pennies in South Africa to come cut a record in the States.

The studios have to come to terms with what the smartest employers have always known. You can treat unskilled employees badly and make a few dimes you wouldn't otherwise make. But when your workers are skilled, it benefits you to treat them well and have a stable, skilled workforce. That's why Henry Ford paid his men $5 a day when the going rate was $1 a day.

Writers: striking for a more efficient intellectual content market. You won't see it on a picket sign, but it's still true.

PS DMc has more links to articles on this question.

Labels: ,


Just found your blog today.
I'm an aspiring tv comedy writer- pre WGA member.
(so I guess my official title is "wannabe")
Anyway- I'm flying from Ohio to NYC Thursday to pick up a sign and walk with WGA East.
Which line will you be at Thurs or Fri?
Sure would like to try that bagel you mentioned.
You can read freshman blogspot (thegladgirl.blogspot) or visit my everyday type blog @

By Blogger The GladGirl, at 10:06 AM  

I tend to think that the best analogy for the writer is the producer.

One's inventive skill plus the other's entreprenurial skill equals a viable project. A viable project attracts the finance for the writer to get scripting and the producer to get producing.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 10:34 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Unknown, at 9:40 PM  

I wish I was so powerful I didn't ever have to think.

Seriously, I'm actually surprised that the "moguls" didn't realize that it was in their best interests to "cave" to the MEAGER demands of the writers when they are raking in cash hand over fist, with very, very questionable accounting practices.

That teetering empire might come crashing down one day on closer inspection.

By Blogger James, at 12:06 AM  

Someone left a comment on Craig's site that, I think, explains better why screenwriters should get residuals. And by the way, I'm not a Stephen King fan, but it still works...

“Say you’re Stephen King, and you’ve been struggling for years to get a novel published, and after being broke forever finally you sell CARRIE. And they pay you $10,000 for the book (not uncommon), and lo, it becomes a bestseller in hardback.

“But you never get another check. And when you call to ask why, the publishers (who have since each purchased a private jet) tell you that your book has actually lost $225 million and will likely never generate a profit, and that part of the problem is that writers like you get paid too much to begin with.

“Then they publish the paperback, which sells five or ten times more copies than the hardback did, and they tell you, ‘We already paid you once, we don’t pay the plumber more than once,’ and they still don’t give you a dime for it. Thirty years later your book CARRIE is still on the racks in every bookstore in America, yet you never see a dime.

“Then they make a movie out of it, and they don’t pay you anything for that either, because they say the movie is ‘promotional’ — it’s to help sell the hardback. (Which is now out of print.) And they don’t pay you for the audiobook either, which they had you narrate for free. And they don’t pay you for the DVDs, nor the ITunes downloads, nor the TV miniseries remake of CARRIE that gets made a few decades after your book sells.

“By this time your wife has left you, you HAVE become a plumber, and you’ve burned those other nascent novels of yours like THE STAND and THE SHINING, because if there’s one thing you’ve learned from all this it’s that it is impossible to make any kind of profit in novels.

“That sound like a good deal to you?”

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:18 AM  

By the way, the person who left the comment is not getting a residual, but only because I, nor anyone else, is making money off it.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:19 AM  

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