THE WRITERS GUILD, DISABILITIES AND YOU
As you’ve probably heard, the Writers Guild of America, the union that includes every writer who has written every fictional movie and television show you’ve ever watched your entire life, went on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), including the six megacorporations such as Time Warner and Fox who today control almost anything you watch outside of videos on Google and You Tube, although I’m sure they’re working on buying those companies, too.
It’s about the future, and who will get paid for the material that runs on the Internet, the iPhone, the Blackberry, and all the other zippy technology that will soon dominate the entertainment media for the next millennium. This is big stuff, especially if you are a writer. And what affects writers in Hollywood affects you, too, so please keep reading.
One caveat: I’m writing this on the very day that the two sides of this historic dispute have gone back to the bargaining table, the first time since the strike began four weeks ago. I fervently hope that they are pounding out a fair deal right this minute, since hundreds of thousands of people in the entertainment industry are affected by the shutdown. Let’s just assume they have reached a glorious agreement, writers are dancing in the streets and we can now focus on what this strike has accomplished.
First of all, the strike brought to the forefront how quickly things are about to change in the delivery of all media in this country. How many of you now watch shows like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm by either downloading the first from NBC.com or watching the latter at 3 am on Video on Demand? How soon will it be before you simply instruct your cell phone to download The Office automatically through a free wireless link? Or how soon before a better, zanier Office shows up as original programming on a website yet to be invented? Or better yet, how soon before some device, yet to be created—where the content doesn’t even resemble TV programming—shows up on a digital service yet created and makes some smart-ass Harvard kid a zillion dollars overnight?
Not long, my friend, not long.
Indicative of the current power and reach of Internet entertainment are the flurry of writer-generated videos on You Tube and other web outlets skewering the recalcitrant AMPTP. Most of these were knocked off for next to nothing by unemployed writers from The David Letterman Show, The Daily Show and the like, and they are wildly entertaining. Ironically, the very medium these producers want to control is being used against them.
The second lesson of the strike, at least for those sensitive to such matters, is to underscore how potentially life-changing this new media frontier could be for the disabled community. With few exceptions, disabled performers, writers and other creative workers, have been largely shut out of conventional TV and film, even the burgeoning business of cable TV. There are incremental signs of improvement here and there—a president with polio in Warm Springs here, a onelegged woman on My Name Is Earl there—but nothing that comes close to adding up to a new day for the disabled in the arts and media.
Every one on the front line in Hollywood will keep beating on those doors, trying to get in. For instance, there were at least two sitcom pilots last season that focused totally on the world of the disabled. Unfortunately neither was picked up, but neither were 6,000 other pilots. But as opportunities expand exponentially for all creative people in the brave new world of digital, they also expand for the creative disabled community. In many ways this new media landscape is a blank slate for anyone with the right ideas. And it would seem that a writer at a computer who happens to be sitting in a wheelchair, like me, is on the exact same playing field as one sitting in a really uncomfortable hardback chair. On your mark, get set, create the future!
Recently at the Writers Guild, we sent out a voluntary survey questionnaire asking disabled writers to identify themselves so we could have a better understanding of who was out there. We got a pretty hardy response—70 or so people, disabled or not, wrote back in support— but one nasty reply laid out a common and sensibleseeming argument about why a writer with a disability should not be considered a special category or deserve anything more than a ramp to the office. The person said something like:
“Who cares if a writer is disabled? Physical impairment has nothing to do with writing! Write a good script and no one will care who wrote the damn thing. Stop your bellyaching and start writing!”
That person is right, of course, except in the real, dogeat-dog-eat-writer world of TV and film. It’s an alterante universe of pitch meetings and power breakfasts, schmoozing and social networking. However, if you arrive in a wheelchair, there is hardly any room that you enter where you don’t feel like an outsider. For a 1,000 reasons, there is an invisible barrier you must always traverse.
It’s no doubt the same for you in your business, too, but your business probably doesn’t generate the human imagery that permeates every one of our media-addicted brains.
So, stay tuned or logged-on or something. With the rise of the new media, the makers of that imagery will likely change and, along with the makers, the imagery itself. And all of those multi-millions of disabled people in America may finally see their own reflection staring back at them on the digital delivery system of their choice.
I saw a small glimpse of this new reality during the strike itself. Danny Murphy, a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild’s Performers With Disabilities Committee (PWD) and maybe the hardest working disabled man in show business, helped stage an event that included both performers and writers with disabilities coming out in support of the Writers Guild strikers. He figured it would show us gathering together around a common cause, and probably generate a fair amount of media curiosity. We could just imagine the local TV reporter’s brain turning: Look, a bunch of people in wheelchairs carrying signs. Roll camera!
Which is exactly what happened. Actually, they really just wanted to talk to Robert David Hall, perennial star of CSI, who just happens to be a double-amputee, and the rest of us crowded into the shot. But more importantly, 40 to 50 actors and writers with disabilities gathered with other picketers in front of Warner Brothers’ studio and basked in our mutual presence. We were visible, not only to Channel 7 but to each other! For at least one day in the image-obsessed, status-obsessed, look-at-me-obsessed high school called Hollywood, we were the dominant clique on campus. It was a joyous occasion and hopefully a portent of greater collaboration and support.
So, assuming the strike is over and we can all get to work creating the post-television media age, look for more disabled writers, performers, entrepreneurs and visionaries in the mix. If we don’t seize the day, it will be our own damn fault.
by Allen Rucker