This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
A few years ago, I heard this story from a friend of mine. He's got a kid in elementary school -- he and the family live back east -- and one day, in his oldest kid's second-grade classroom, suddenly, without warning, all of the kids started to throw up.
Just cascades, apparently. And for no discernible reason. So they shut down the school, sent everybody home, called out the HazMat crew, and sent in the guys in the spacesuits to sniff around, measure stuff, check for gas and chemicals and E. coli and anything else that might make twenty-six seven year-olds hurl and hurl and hurl and hurl.
You know what they found? Nothing. That's right. Nothing. No chemicals or gasses or E. colis or anything. But they did discover that one of the kids -- only one -- had been suffering from a slightly upset stomach that morning. And they figured that what happened was this: that kid -- just that one -- had suddenly felt queasy, been unable to manage the situation -- hey, he's seven -- and had yacked all over himself and his desk.
The sight, and let's be honest, the smell of which has inspired one or two of his closest neighbors to suddenly let loose on their own, which had a ripple effect throughout the class, from the side of the room with the hamster cage to the side of the room with the "Let's Help the Earth" posters. Suddenly, an entire class was upchucking, the sound of retching echoed down the halls, the air was thick with the stench of bile and sick, and the floors were drenched and stuccoed with vomit.
Which brings us to the Writers Strike of 2007.
I'm on strike. I'm not supposed to write anything for the screen, think anything for the screen, or even think about thinking about anything for the screen, which isn't such a terrible burden, really, because I'm an incredibly lazy person anyway, and I love having any excuse for not writing. If you really want to punish me, make me write.
But I do have an uneasy relationship with my union, the Writers Guild. I've been a member since 1990, and I've never really been all that enthusiastic about it, I've never felt like my concerns and the guild's concerns were all that united. I've never understood why the Directors Guild has a better pension plan than we do, or why the WGA won't allow for a little flexibility in our deals. The one-size-fits-all basic agreement the Guild hammers out every few years often seems to me to represent a view of the business as it used to be, or as we wish it would be, rather than how it really is.
And, look, I'll be honest: I'm not crazy about this strike. I'm not at all certain that what we get is going to be worth the cost, the lost spots on the broadcast schedule, the eroding attentions of an audience more interested in Facebook and Guitar Hero.
And yet, there's something so ham-fisted and ridiculous about the studios' position -- honestly, we're talking about a few cents here and there -- and something so old-mannish about their terrified position on possible Internet revenue streams -- that it's hard not to grab a sign and march around, acting out some kind of weird fantasy of myself -- a guy with, let's face it, no real marketable skills, who has nonetheless parlayed an ability to write funny words for other, better looking, people to say, into a very nice sinecure and a comfortable imported car -- and act like I'm the lead in a Clifford Odets play.
The truth is, the web -- that thing that brings us email and MySpace and cats playing the piano on YouTube -- has a kind of WalMart effect on the entertainment choices offered to the audience: there's a lot more to choose from, most of it's pretty awful, and all of it is going to be a lot cheaper. When you combine the digitization of content with unlimited bandwidth, what you get is a cheaper, more efficient system. And Brentwood was not built on cheap, or efficient. This town -- and all of us who work here -- all of us, writers, agents, actors, lawyers, studio executives, all of us here in the second grade classroom called Hollywood -- have a stake in preserving this great big slushy inefficient mess of a system, that makes pilots that never get aired, buys scripts that never get produced, makes movies that no one sees, produces series that get cancelled.
I feel like we're all hanging out in the hardware store on Main Street, bickering, while they're building the SuperWalMart out where the interstate meets the state highway. To the writers -- to my colleague -- I say, the web is going to force us to radically alter our expectations about residuals. We will probably end up getting less. That's what market efficiencies do. Let's figure out how to adjust to that.
To the studios, I say make a deal. Swallow it, and make a deal. You may think you can kill the WGA, and you probably can, but it'll be the first part of a murder-suicide pact, and if you don't believe me, call up somebody in the record business. If you can find one. The web's been visiting with them, too. Those kids on YouTube and Facebook aren't going to make you rich; your box office is dwindling; your ratings are dropping; Guitar Hero is not fattening Sumner Redstone's wallet.
We're all in the second grade together. Let's stop throwing up on each other.
That's it for this week. Next week, I'll pretend to be Lew Wasserman and solve this ridiculous mess. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.
Photo: Dexter Kim