While they were out, striking writers kept writing, but for themselves
When the Hollywood writers’ strike began last November, TV and film writer Michael Genet had just finished three screenplays and was pitching a TV series to ABC. The strike postponed these projects, but rather than wallow, Genet vowed to use the strike as an opportunity to start from scratch.
“You write because you don’t want the time on the picket line to be a total waste of time,” he said.
Viewers who spent three frustrating months in front of the TV flipping through reruns and reality programming might be pleased to know that many writers were busy during the strike creating new material, some of which is set to debut soon.
The dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which recently ended after 100 days, was just the time and creative stimulation writers needed to resurrect “back burner” projects and develop new material.
“There’s going to be a flood rush of material,” said Genet, who wrote a fairy tale screenplay during the strike.
But a lot of the new material isn’t destined for your TV. Instead, the entertainment drought could be replaced by a host of projects that go straight to the Web, or end up in movie theaters or on stage.
The first new material to reach audiences will appear on the Internet--the medium at the heart of the strike.
“Studios did us a favor by getting us on picket lines together, talking about how we’d change the system,” said Peter Rader, coauthor of “Waterworld” and co-creator of Hollywood Disrupted, a Web site born from the strike that will display short videos ranging from comedies to documentaries. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” he said.
He hopes to unveil the site in March, at which point Hollywood should be fully back to work. But Rader maintains that with a name change--Hollywood Remix--the project will play an enduring role in the evolving online entertainment industry.
“Keep your day jobs, do what you can on weekends,” Rader advises writers interested in joining. “Or don’t at your own peril, because this business is all going this way no matter what.”
Another Web start-up, once suitably named Strike TV, will feature original videos created by guild writers, and is to debut later this month.
Writers for “The Office,” “The Simpsons,” “House,” “Hannah Montana” and “The Daily Show” are producing videos for the site--described as an online “channel”--and they promise that the material will not be strike-related.
Rob Kutner, a writer who was on strike from “The Daily Show,” has teamed with his wife, Sheryl Zohn, also a writer, to create a 10- to 15-minute romantic comedy for Strike TV. They had plenty of time to work on the project while striking, an experience Kutner jokingly described as “a little smothering.”
“It’s the chance to do something creative and something that is going outside the studio system to show that people are interested in our ideas and will give us money for them,” Kutner said.
Strike TV’s ad revenue will benefit a program that assists non-writers who were out of work during the strike.
Since actors were among those affected by the strike, Kutner and Zohn were able to cast Kristen Wiig from “Saturday Night Live” and Mindy Kaling from “The Office.”
Recently, while shooting until 1:30 a.m., Kutner realized: “Normally people would have to get up and go to work, but that’s not a problem” during the strike.
For the writers who went to work every day on the picket line, the strike offered creative inspiration for new material, if not the time to pursue it.
Judy Tate, a writer for the soap opera “Days of our Lives,” worked on a dramatic screenplay about overcoming personal plight to make sacrifices for the good of the community--that is, when she was not being a strike captain for the guild.
“Who knew striking was such a full-time job,” Tate said. But it also “inspired the script.” Tate said she was creative in her organizing techniques and picket signs, and when the time was right, she would write--her screenplay or one of several other projects she began.
“The creative process is at work everywhere,” she said.
For screenwriter Sheila Mitchell, the creative process was rewriting three screenplays--in her head--as she walked the picket line.
“One thing that’s in my head right now is about this girl, nobody can hear her, no one is listening to her,” Mitchell explained, likening the character’s invisibility to her experience on the picket line.
For TV writer Allan Neuwirth, walking the picket line was a chance to speak with fellow writers he rarely sees. Stimulated by the opportunity to collaborate informally, he resumed writing a Broadway musical.
Unable to pitch ideas to networks or studios, writers like Neuwirth turned to the theater industry, unaffiliated with the guild, as a venue for their new material.
Neuwirth expects at least one resulting project, though not his own, to be about the strike.
“Everyone keeps saying the same thing: A play or a movie is going to come out of this,” he said, suggesting a romantic comedy as a likely plot.
Most material generated during the strike likely will be destined for outlets other than TV, as it is unclear whether TV writers are allowed to use those ideas at their jobs.
“Strictly speaking, they shouldn’t have been writing anything for their employer,” said entertainment lawyer Bill Grantham. “But as long as they didn’t submit it to their employer during the strike,” Grantham believes, “a certain latitude will be afforded.”
And for striking writers whose material is later purchased by a network or studio other than the one that employs the writer, “There’s no guidelines or rules for this,” Grantham said. “It’s a matter that will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”
In Genet’s case, he wrote to be productive, without worrying about where the material would appear.
“You try to write and hope that you’ll be able to show: This is what I did during this time,” he said.