On Friday morning, driving down Olympic, I noticed that the marine layer was conspicuously thick and gray. I had been out of town for the fires last month, so I was a bit slow to pick up on the signs of the new round of incinerations that had started the night before. The Santa AnaÁ¢€â„¢s, the hot gusts of wind that carry cinders though canyons full of parched undergrowth, were barely noticeable in downtown LA. It wasnÁ¢€â„¢t until I tried to let the siren song of college football sing me to sleep that I learned that once again, Malibu was on fire.
The local news stations in Los Angeles thrive on high speed chases (preferably that include celebrities and/or conclude with spectacular accidents), riots, and natural disasters. One of their favorite tactics to break up the monotony of cars driving down freeways, or of helicopters hovering over burning brush, is to include interviews with bystanders, or better yet, victims.
During the October fires, which were much more severe than this latest round, there were plenty of opportunities for interviews with residents who had seen their own homes burn down. During a particularly heartbreaking segment, reporter Larry Himmel (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKGF2bbxQ6E) documented the destruction of his own home for the CBS affiliate in San Diego. The footage was used nationally; as I watched it on CNN in my hotel room in Reno I was starting to realize just how monumental the fires were. The footage of evacuated families gathering at Qualcomm stadium, in stark contrast to the horrors of the Superdome during Katrina, featured hopeful, optimistic citizens participating in a well-executed and measured response to the relentless fires that tore through the county. The October fires, which did most of their damage in San Diego, hit Malibu as well, burning fourteen homes and a church.
This latest round of Malibu fires was different. As I read up on the fires online, I realized the unlike during October, when I felt a mix of pity and sympathy for the unfortunate homeowners who were often lucky to have saved just a few important keepsakes and their pets, I felt an indifference tinged with resentment towards the few shell-shocked and dull-eyed residents who were interviewed as part of the continuing coverage of the new fires. The AP article quoted a Malibu resident Á¢€” a videographer and photographer Á¢€” who had lost her 2 million dollar home, as well as her collection of 12 uninsured cars to the fire. Hearing about a twelve-year old lose his prize collection of baseball cards, some of which had been passed on to him by his father and grandfather, would moisten the corners of my eyes. Hearing about some privileged artist in Malibu losing a bunch of carsÁ¢€¦not so much. I know it sounds callous, but my attitude towards it can be summed up thusly: if she can afford to have a collection of twelve automobiles, she can also afford to not have a collection of twelve automobiles.
Further coverage just reinforced my original impression. On television they interviewed an artist who had only been home for a few hours after a lengthy vacation to see his house taken. His neighbors, who were on vacation in South Africa, lost theirs as well. Linda Thomson, an Á¢€Å“actressÁ¢€ who was most recently featured on the atrocious Á¢€Å“The Princes of MalibuÁ¢€ was quoted as saying: “There’s several homes on Sycamore Meadow Drive that are gone, but thank God, I believe my main house is intact and most of the guest house, which is where the recording studio is.”
At this point, youÁ¢€â„¢re no doubt wondering Á¢€Å“What the fuck does this have to do with the writersÁ¢€â„¢ guild strike?Á¢€ IÁ¢€â„¢m getting to that, I promise.
One of the unusual things about how Los Angeles, and particularly Hollywood, is portrayed in the media of film and television is that it is a city of the very rich and the very poor. To people who live elsewhere, LA is only witnessed as consisting of celebrities, and the brown or black underclass who park their cars and clean their houses. Between the overwhelming splendor of Beverly Hills and the heartbreaking squalor of Skid Row, there is very little that leaves an impression of the LA in between. But this city has its own working class; itÁ¢€â„¢s own middle class, and Hollywood writers, along with millions of other citizens, inhabit this realm.
How many writers (that are not also performers, actors, or directors) have names recognizable to those outside of the industry? Paul Haggis. Charlie Kaufmann. Joe Eszterhas. Writers typically work in the shadows, and receive about as much credit for their contribution to movies and television as paint manufacturers received for Pablo Picasso and Salvador DaliÁ¢€â„¢s creations. DonÁ¢€â„¢t believe me? Who wrote Saving Private Ryan? A Beautiful Mind?
For the uninitiated, the writers guild strike is primarily about profit-sharing from the broadcast of television programs online. ItÁ¢€â„¢s explained very succinctly in a video here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJ55Ir2jCxk). One of the driving forces behind the strike is the question of revenue sharing over internet content. Currently, for every dollar of revenue earned by the studios for streaming television shows, the writers receive 0 (zero) cents. They would like more.
Appropriately for Hollywood, one of the most important factors in determining who has a stronger position in this fight is image. As with every strike, the management paints the strikers as lazy, crooked, and shiftless, holding production hostage to their demands and causing irreparable damage to the economy. The strikers paint the management as greedy, aristocratic, and inhuman, obtaining windfall profits based on the labor of others while contributing next to nothing themselves.
For the Hollywood studios to win the battle of public opinion, they must convince the rest of America, tired of reruns and hungry to find out whatÁ¢€â„¢s happening to their favorite characters, that the writers are the ones who are reaping huge profits based on a minimal amount of work. After all, itÁ¢€â„¢s pretty hard to argue against the percentages the writers have asked for; itÁ¢€â„¢s pretty hard to plead poverty; and itÁ¢€â„¢s pretty hard to persuade anyone that internet streaming is a risky venture is that is liable to flop. But seriously? Writing? How hard can it be?
Writing, like acting, is an artistic profession, and the market is notoriously fickle. The residuals are part of what enables writers to live a middle-class lifestyle. Ideally, the studios would have their viewers believe that writers are insufferably lazy, living fat and happy off a single script they wrote years ago, sipping expensive sake, and occasionally dashing off new material to pay for a new Mini Cooper or to resurface their tennis court. But thatÁ¢€â„¢s a very had case to make. Especially when blue-collar unions like the Teamsters and the Longshoremen offer their support.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to my point about the Malibu fires. While the news stations didnÁ¢€â„¢t interview any writers (I do not expect there many living in that particular part of Malibu), they did interview artists. And the impression that I walked away with, even though I know better, is that artists in Los Angeles can afford million-dollar houses and take exotic vacations.
This may sound a bit far-fetched, and I know, itÁ¢€â„¢s hard to hear me over the crinkling of my tin foil hat. But donÁ¢€â„¢t forget Á¢€” the studio that makes The Office is owned by the same network that produces NBC News. Every television show you see on the major networks is owned by a corporation that also produces television news. And through the Malibu fires, they were presented with an opportunity to present their opponents as unsympathetic characters, however obliquely. Would the networks really be cynical enough to exploit circumstances like the Malibu fires to their own advantage? You tell me.