Case #5: Eric Estrin

Interview by Fergus and Marcia for Pop Vultures

Eric Estrin at his computer Eric Estrin is a long-time member of the WGA, with television credits going back over twenty years. He has written for such diverse shows as Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote and The Outer Limits and also served as writer/producer on V.I.P.

Fergus and Marcia from Pop Vultures had a chance to ask him about the Writers’ Guild strike, and why it had to happen.

Can you tell how you came to writing, and how you got your break?
I studied journalism in college and was covering the entertainment industry freelance for a variety of newspapers and magazines. I was also the TV critic for Los Angeles magazine. After a couple of years of this, I decided to quit criticizing and start doing. Miami Vice was the hot new show at the time, and I was from Miami, had covered Miami as a journalist, and had a bunch of story ideas that went beyond the usual for that show. I teamed up with a partner, wrote a spec episode, and showed it to everyone we knew through our years of being around the business. We got an assignment for a show that never made it onto the air, but through that experience we joined the Writers Guild, found an agent and were soon invited into Miami Vice, where we wrote an episode.

How easy has it been to pick and choose your work?
In the beginning it was easier for me to work only for shows that I targeted. I was new in the business, and everyone who breaks in gets the benefit of the doubt as the possible “next big thing.” After a while you tend to get pigeonholed in a certain genre, but I always resisted that and tried to write for a variety of different one-hour dramas. My former partner (Michael Berlin) and I also had a budding movie career going, but it was torpedoed by the writers’ strike of 1988. After that we sort of struggled to get back into TV and had more trouble controlling our career paths, as we were no longer the flavor of the month, and new writers came along with more momentum. But I’m happy to look back at my success in a variety of genres — cop shows, women-oriented drama, fantasy and supernatural, and comedy-action. It reassures me that I’m always only a spec script away from taking any new path I want.

What’s the current WGA dispute about?
Mainly new media. The industry is undergoing a sea change now in terms of content delivery. When I broke in, most TV writing was done for three broadcast networks. Then four, five and six. Meanwhile cable boomed to the point where it has partially eclipsed broadcast as a source of quality scripted programming. Now content is moving to the Internet, to computers, cell phones and PDAs. The Writers Guild wants to make sure that those who create material for these new delivery systems are compensated fairly. And that when our material is re-used in these new media, we are paid fairly for that too.

Producers willing to finance a writer’s vision and bring it to life take a financial risk and they’re rewarded if the show becomes a hit. Writers also take a risk. We invest our time, our creativity and our very selves into making a script worthwhile. If a production company is able to reap benefits from that beyond the initial airing that we’re paid for, we deserve a small percentage of that too. What we’re asking for does not greatly impact the companies, but it makes a huge difference to the artists who create the product from nothing. This is the way book authors and playwrights are compensated too.

What’s to stop TV and film companies from hiring ‘scab’ writers, or writers from overseas?
Well, it’s not so easy to find scab writers who can deliver quality material in a professional way. It’s possible, but it’s a huge gamble for companies that are spending large sums of money on very tight production schedules and that are used to depending on not just one writer, but usually a team of quality writers to deliver what they need when they need it. On top of that, most writers with any talent want to be in the WGA so they can get treated fairly and receive decent benefits. They know that scabbing will greatly jeopardize that possibility. And also, most writers are by nature empathetic and sensitive to others’ situations, and they realize that scabbing hurts all writers and is wrong and unfair. The companies realize that too and they’ll all want to be in business with us again when the strike is over.

The strike has already halted many film and TV productions. Does the WGA have the full support of other workers in the industry?
We have a lot of support. “Full support” might be overstating it, because people are hurting financially and some of them are unable to see beyond their immediate pain. But I’ve been very encouraged by the strong support we’ve gotten from within our guild, from our colleagues in the Screen Actors Guild and the Director’s Guild of America, from those who work below the line and from the general public. All of us are suffering, and almost all of us realize the necessity of the strike as long as the companies resist treating us fairly.

How do you think the industry will be changed by this strike?
It’s already changing in a number of ways. On the TV side, which is what I’m most familiar with, you see the broadcast networks cutting costs by relying more on reality-type shows. This makes the networks less distinguishable from cable and Internet outlets, so viewers are migrating away from broadcast. The numbers show this has been happening since before the strike, and now it’s happening faster. When the strike is settled, most of the nets will invest heavily to get those viewers back, but one or two may decide to go the cheap route and settle for a smaller, less desirable (to advertisers) audience. That will create openings for the cable networks and the Internet to step in and take that audience away. At the same time, writers are realizing that we no longer need to work within the network system to get our ideas to the screen. Video cameras and editing programs are fairly inexpensive now, and anyone can post anything on the Internet. In the last couple of years, and especially since the strike, we’ve seen a huge jump in the quality of Internet programming. That’s going to continue, as writers disgusted with the current system learn that by becoming producers they can control and own their own material. That’s huge for writers. And technologically, things are changing so fast that it’s possible the networks won’t be viable at all in a few years. Content may be delivered to computers hooked up to big screens.

Have you spent much time on the picket line?
I live in Ventura County, about 30 miles from the nearest picket line, but I try to get out there a couple of times a week if I can. The mood on the line has been very positive throughout the strike. We can feel the support not only within the Guild but from the community as well. Most days we have actors marching with us, and it’s not unusual for below-the-line workers and even fans join our pickets. People donate food and drinks, and passing drivers honk their horns to let us know they’re behind us. It’s really different from our 1988 strike, where picketing was a lower key activity and whatever community support we had was much quieter. The result is greater attendance and greater resolve from within our ranks.

How else is this strike different from the 1988 one?
Obviously, we were much better prepared this time. The Guild brought in a longtime union organizer, David Young, to be our executive director a year before our strike vote. Young had little or no experience in the entertainment industry, and we took a lot of heat for going with “an outsider.” In the early days of the strike, the companies’ main thrust was that our leadership didn’t understand how business was done in Hollywood. This was widely reported as fact in the trades and the mainstream press. Actually, we did understand the traditional way of doing business, and we didn’t like it. So we turned it upside down, which really pissed a lot of people off. We struck sooner than we were expected to, not giving the companies a chance to stockpile scripts, and we’ve had strike teams working behind the scenes on a variety of creative strategies, including inter-guild outreach to SAG and DGA, location pickets and morale-boosting theme pickets. The other major difference from 1988 was that the companies, which control the media, controlled the coverage last time. This time, we’ve gotten our message out very well over the Internet, and we can really feel the difference in terms of national and international support. So that also helps morale, which is important when you’re involved in a long strike.

Any response to those that think the writers are just being greedy?
Obviously, they don’t understand the issues and in most cases don’t care to. There’s a percentage of writers whose work has made them wealthy and a larger percentage who struggle with varying degrees of success to get by in a very expensive city. The irony is, the extremely wealthy ones don’t need to strike at all; they’re doing it for the rest of us and for the writers who’ll come after us, just as those in previous generations fought to make conditions better for me and my peers.

So what are you currently working on?
Glad you asked, because I’m kicking off a project this week. It’s called the LAObserved ScriptProject. I’ve written the first four pages of an LA-based, political suspense thriller, and I’m asking readers to submit the next 1-5 pages each week. I’ll judge the entries and pick one submission weekly to carry the script forward. We’ll do this for six or eight months until the script is finished, with everyone whose pages are chosen getting a t-shirt and a chance to compete for a grand prize. I hope to get the first pages posted in the next few days.

As for actual, money-making, WGA-covered projects, I was getting this script project together when the strike started, so I have no assignments lined up. I have a couple of spec things, though — a TV pilot and a feature script — that I hope will lead to work when the strike is over.

Thanks to Eric for taking the time to answer our questions. And definitely check out the LAObserved ScriptProject — it’s sure to produce some interesting writing!