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Many Hollywood writers keep their holiday cheer

Guild members say they saved money ahead of strike in anticipation of Christmas spending

Many Hollywood writers keep their holiday cheer

Nearly two months without paychecks. Scores of shuttered shows. Thousands out of work. The Hollywood writers strike suggests a bleak Christmas for many in Hollywood.
But just like a movie script, this story has a twist: many striking writers remain upbeat despite the financial and emotional strains the walkout has brought to the season.
Since members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike job November 5, more than US$350 million in wages have been lost, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Committee.
Writers, though, are accustomed to sporadic employment and saving their pennies, and they are inspired by the feeling that they are helping their profession and the labor movement at large.
"We're swept up by the romantic notion of being on strike and doing the right thing," said Luvh Rakhe, a writer and strike captain for the ABC TV comedy show "Cavemen." "By strengthening the union movement in Hollywood, everyone who's in a union benefits."
But not everyone sees it that way.
The strike against the studios has also forced nearly 40,000 "below-the-line" workers - including electricians, carpenters, welders and prop masters - out of work, according to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Unlike the writers, who are buoyed by feelings of righteousness and will presumably benefit from the strike's outcome, these workers are simply jobless at what should be a festive time of year.
The strike has been "devastating" for IATSE members, said spokeswoman Katherine Orloff.
"They've not only lost their paychecks, they're losing hours that contribute to eligibility for health insurance and pension coverage," she said. "Everybody wants to go back to work, whether they support the strike, don't support the strike, are angry at producers or are angry at writers."
Christmas presents are hardly a concern when "people are going to start losing their homes and their businesses," she said. "Gifts are almost frivolous ideas at this point. This is about survival."
Most writers and below-the-line workers earn middle-class incomes. The average writers-guild member's salary is US$62,000 a year, according to the WGA. IATSE salaries are similar. Strike or no, employment is inconsistent for both groups, with nearly half of writers-guild members and 10 to 15 percent of IATSE members without work during the year.
"As a writer, you have to develop the instinct of squirreling money away," Rakhe said. "You're just used to a lot of uncertainty in the first place."
The WGA prepared its members for the possibility of a strike a year in advance, so many writers saved money and started buying Christmas presents early.
Others curtailed shopping and travel plans to accommodate newly abbreviated incomes.
Writers in serious financial straits can apply for loans from the US$13 million Writers Guild Strike Fund, said WGA spokesman Gregg Mitchell. Loans are approved by a member-governed internal committee. About US$3.8 million in loans were granted to members during the 1988 writers strike, he said. He declined to say how many, if any, loans had been granted since November 5.
Still, even successful writers feel the strike's pall over the season.
"This is the worst holiday in this town that I've ever experienced," said Jim Brooks, longtime writer and producer of "The Simpsons." "This is not dancing-in-the-street time. This is shuffling in a line, carrying a sign time."
Studios, though, are still celebrating, with Disney, Universal and Paramount throwing big holiday bashes like they do each year.
Those same studios, said "Law & Order" scribe Joe Reinkemeyer, are the "Grinch that stole Christmas from all of Hollywood."
However, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, blames the writers.
"Because they walked off the job, tens of thousands of other people who had no stake in this dispute are losing hundreds of millions of dollars," said spokesman Jesse Hiestand. "Many of those other workers will never have the kind of six-figure incomes enjoyed by WGA writers and it is a real shame that the holiday season is being dimmed by the writers' decision to go on strike."
Pamela Elyea, who runs the prop company History for Hire, is not pointing fingers. Her main concern is keeping her company afloat and her employees working.
"The best present anybody could have is just to keep their job," she said. "It's that true meaning of Christmas, where you're grateful for your family, you're grateful for your community and you're grateful for your country. It's not about the stuff. It's about the people."


Updated : 2021-06-15 18:53 GMT+08:00