Call me a cynic if you will but despite the myriad inspirational chain emails you get from less faith-impaired friends and relatives every morning telling you how we live in a wondrous and Christ-filled world just because some interesting but nevertheless primitive book said so, it is painfully obvious that the marrow of human civilization is exploitation. Not money. Not sex. Not even the pursuit of greatness. The world operates because a man is willing and has the power to take advantage of another for personal gain. History is bursting at the seams with often barbaric examples of this. Marx showed us how revolutions are basically just the exploited metamorphosing into exploiters. Even the Abrahamic God that Jews, Christians, and Muslims share and more frequently kill each other over endorses slavery.
Back during simpler, more brutal times, the process of exploitation was pretty much straightforward. A man would attack another to take his food, his mate, his home, or his freedom. There were no such things as rules of engagement that, if broken, would make Baby Jesus cry. Nature favored the winner. As the eons passed, things became much more awesome when the exploiter started using weapons, armies, diseases, chemicals, and the power of the atom. To temper the horror of such ventures, humanity invented ever-evolving codes of honor; codes that would later on become laws. These days, the pursuit of war is largely frowned upon. A man cannot assault another for gain without the hand of the law seeking him out. On the surface, human civilization is all about justice and equality. On the surface.
Look around you and then tell me if what you see is a society clothed in the magnificent robes of justice and equality. I thought not. Business overlords have their fangs in our necks. Religious leaders have their claws in our souls. Politicians of every stripe and color have their cocks in our assholes. Hell, even a pedicab driver will cheat you for a few coins if he can get away with it, demonstrating that in certain matters the shit doesn’t always slide down. Exploitation, indeed, is at the core of human nature. Only this time the process is far more subtle. Whereas once it was a simple case of taking what one can, nowadays it’s the art of coercing the other guy to gradually surrender what is his: a finger today, another tomorrow, and an arm by the end of the week.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the position we, the scriptwriters of this generation, are finding ourselves in. Except that we’ve gone way past giving away our fingers and limbs. These days they’re asking for our testicles.
When I started writing professionally more than eight years ago, the country’s mainstream film industry was in its death throes. Back then it was already pretty obvious that if I wanted to make a decent buck through my talents I had to go and prostitute my brain to television. It wasn’t such a bad deal since that was a time when TV was a profitable path for young writers. I won’t delve into the issues surrounding the artistic merits (or the lack thereof) of this endeavor since that would be a rant for another day. What I’m talking about is the barest principle of professional scriptwriting: brainjizz for money, words for food. While scriptwriting, like many artistic occupations, may not be as secure as office employment where you can decently expect regularization, some benefits, and a pension upon retirement; a script every couple of weeks and a sensible head can nonetheless lead to a comfortable retirement in the twilight of the wordslinger’s life. It’s a hell of a far cry from the life of poverty that our parents and relatives warned us it would be. At least it once seemed so. Nowadays a lot of us are seriously wondering if those warnings are turning out to be prophetic. TV may have been a profitable path for young writers once upon a time, yet those days are no more.
On the top of a writer’s woes is the ever-shrinking talent fee. I remember how, at the beginning of a show that I wouldn’t mention here, I was being coerced to write about a hundred pages of script for the same amount I was earning two years before for about twenty pages. Being the squeaky wheel that I am, I balked at that insulting rate. I was told that the network had standardized talent fees. I went to the department’s HR and asked them if the standardization was true. Hilarity ensued.
“So,” I said. “Is it true that the talent fee rates of writers have been standardized?”
“Ah… yes,” the girl at the desk replied. “It’s true.”
“At Auschwitz death camp bargain rates?”
“Ah… well, HR had a dialogue with the executive producers and that’s what we came up with.”
“EPs don’t write scripts. Writers write scripts. Shouldn’t you have had a dialogue with us instead of the EPs?”
“Ah… but it’s the EPs who will decide if you deserve to get paid more than the standard rates.”
“You do know that EPs would pay us pretty colored rocks if they can convince us it’s money, don’t you?”
“Ecce homo, said Pilate to the Jews,” I muttered.
Of course, it didn’t stop there. I’m a pretty quarrelsome bastard when it comes to talent fees and the gist of it is that I refused to write a single word till the producer agreed to throw more money at my face. The thing is, most writers aren’t as bad-tempered as me. This kind of thing is happening more and more frequently and other writers tend to merely shake their heads in disgust and swallow the jism.
Another abomination in a scriptwriter’s bag of tragedies is the development hell between a show’s conception and its pilot airing. If you’re one of the luckier wordsmiths, you’ll spend about half a year brainstorming a show into existence just so you’ll have a job. You’ll be paid a pittance that would last you a few weeks as development fee and you’ll be expected to show up every day and squirt brainjuice till the cows come home. Add to that the fact that these days new shows air for only three months. There are those who argue that the brief run of shows as bad as what you see on mainstream Philippine TV is a sort of kindness, hyuk hyuk hyuk, and I tend to agree… but that’s not the point here. Logic dictates that six months of mostly-unpaid show development meetings for a program that would employ a dude for only three months is the height of pwntage. Even better, if you’re really out of luck, development hell can take years. Most writers solve this problem by having day jobs. There’s even one writer who sells fruit just so she can afford the cost of commuting to the network. Cue sappy music. When you think about it, there’s a name for this kind of enterprise: a hobby.
Adding insult to injury, producers are downplaying the importance of writers to a show. Unconsciously? Maybe. But I strongly suspect it’s a conscious effort so as to pull down the cost of commissioning a bloke to write a script. Producers would rather believe that writers are only about as valuable to a show as janitors and should be paid the same wages. It’s like saying that a truck’s engine is just some old chunk of metal that you’re keeping in the hood for sentimental reasons. To illustrate: I remember this pseudo-martial arts show that had a production party. The staff invited everyone except the writers. In another show, a writer was treated like a nuisance when he dropped by the taping of his script. Apparently, the producer was pissed because of the added cost of feeding a writer. The list goes on.
I don’t exactly know why but writers are usually a quiet and long-suffering lot. Sure there are a few of us cantankerous alpha male bastards who frequently get into trouble for baring our fangs at producers and directors too often, but generally speaking writers are better at being alone with our thoughts than interacting with other people, especially the non-writer kind. If you go to a production party, chances are you’ll see the show’s creatives in a corner of the room, quietly debating art, politics, and philosophy amongst themselves while the rest of the staff noisily chatter about world-shattering things like who bought what kind of luxury car. It is this timid attitude in our ranks-- this lack of desire to fight-- that has led our kind to this state. Recently though, more and more writers are rattling the chains. There was a time when fellow wordmongers I talk to would merely scratch their heads and make jokes about the situation. Those days are over. It seems that the years of getting cheated, exploited, and demeaned have finally sunk in. Nowadays, when writers get together in a room, there is a sense of something about to detonate.
And then came Ricky Lee’s announcement.
Ricardo Lee, the grand old statesman of the Philippine scriptwriting community, said during the launching of his novel, "Para Kay B," that he’s going to start what he called a Writers Foundation to protect the welfare of film and television writers. If there’s an icon that scriptwriters will rally behind it’s this gentle old man who for decades has been keeping his home open to any struggling wordmonger with a hungry belly and an even hungrier gleam in the eye. The implication of Ricky’s statement isn’t lost among the legions of angry wordslingers.
Sure Ricky called it a foundation, but what writers chafing under the yoke of network exploitation heard was something no wordsmith thought he would see in his lifetime. A union. One with teeth. You see, exploitation may be as old as the human race but its nemesis is just as ancient.
And so it begins. The chains are rattling louder, the clangor turning into a metallic beat. The mumblings are getting stronger, the murmurs turning into an angry chant. A storm is on the horizon. When the call to arms is sounded, producers had better be paying attention. Because whatever it leads to, one thing is certain: there’s going to be a change in how writers are treated in this town.
The plot thickens. Stay tuned.