March 18, 2010

On pause, Maine screenwriters look for other work

TOM BELL

— By

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Wednesday, January,9,2008. Kent Pierce is a member of the striking Writers Guild at his home office in Yarmouth.

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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer; Wednesday, January,9,2008. Kent Pierce is a member of the striking Writers Guild at his home office in Yarmouth.

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Staff Writer

Kelli Pryor of Windham had been writing screenplays for 15 years without much success. But last year, two of her films were produced for television, including ''More of Me,'' a Lifetime Channel comedy starring former ''Saturday Night Live'' star Molly Shannon.

Critics praised the script, and Pryor's career was poised to take off. But shortly before ''More of Me'' aired on TV in November, the Writers Guild of America went on strike.

Instead of fielding calls from producers, Pryor was canceling plans to replace her broken stove.

''It makes a huge difference in our family life and our budget and our prospects,'' said Pryor, who cooked the family's Christmas dinner in a toaster oven. ''It was like hitting the brick wall when the strike started.''

About 10,500 writers are on strike, including about 25 in Maine -- which is about as far away from Hollywood as one can get in both distance and culture.

Many of the Maine writers sacrificed career opportunities to live in a place they view as offering a better quality of life. They work in isolation. There are no studios to picket here, although one writer suggested protesting at the Disney Store at the Maine Mall.

Most had never met until the strike began.

Some are well known in the industry, such as ''Empire Falls'' author Richard Russo, who will travel from his Camden home to New York City this week to join picket lines.

Harpswell resident Wayne Beach, whose film credits include ''Murder at 1600'' and ''The Art of War,'' both starring Wesley Snipes, has also joined the strike.

Stephen King, a former Guild member, supports the strikers and is refusing to promote his latest book, ''Duma Key,'' on television talk shows. He is appearing only on news programs, which are not under Guild jurisdiction.

Most of the Maine writers, such as Pryor, toil in obscurity in a profession that is far less glamorous than one might imagine. They make a living selling scripts to producers who more often than not fail to turn them into movies.

Kent Pierce, 51, of Yarmouth was pitching two finished scripts for feature films when the strike put a hold on all business transactions.

Last month, he gave up his office, and now he's home looking for freelance-writing work in areas outside the Guild's jurisdiction of entertainment television and motion pictures.

''Personally, it has hit hard,'' he said.

ROYALTIES AT ISSUE

At stake is whether the Guild's jurisdiction should be expanded to include original content produced for the Internet. In addition, producers and writers disagree over what royalties should be paid to writers of TV shows and movies that are re-used on the Internet.

The writers now earn no royalties from Internet programming. The Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers has offered the same residual rate for Internet-distributed work that writers get for DVDs, which works out to 0.36 percent of wholesale revenues. Writers are seeking a rate of 2.5 percent.

The producers say the proposed union pay structures would keep their companies from operating effectively on the Internet, which has already hurt profit margins in the news and music industries.

John Lane, an independent motion picture producer who lives in Saco, said writers are compensated when producers buy their screenplays -- writers don't deserve any more money because they don't do any additional work, he said.

Lane produced the low-budget horror films ''Lobsteroids,'' ''Monster in the Woods, and ''2'' and is now in the pre-production phase for an action movie, ''The Novice,'' starring Chuck Norris, he said.

Unlike producers, writers don't invest any money to make the work accessible online, and they don't assume any additional risks, he said.

''They want a part of the Internet, which they have had nothing to do with,'' he said.

For writers, the issue is whether they will earn money in the future when the Internet matures, said Russo, who wrote the screenplay for ''Empire Falls,'' which depicts life in a blue-collar Maine town with an abandoned mill.

He said the outcome of the writers strike will also affect upcoming contract negotiations with the unions that represent directors and actors.

If the producers defeat the Writers Guild, he said, unions that represent workers in all kinds of industries will find themselves in a weakened position.

''I think it would be very bad for unions in general if the writers end up humiliated here,'' he said.

What's happening to the writers is no different from what's happening to workers in many industries and businesses where the middle class is getting squeezed, said Beach, who noted that the average income of a writer in the Guild is $62,000 a year.

''Weigh that against the salaries being pulled by top performers, executives and the CEOs who are pleading poverty even as they are boasting of record profits to Wall Street,'' he said. ''All we're looking to do is feed our families.''

To keep busy during the strike, Beach is writing a novel.

One positive result of the strike is that Maine writers are no longer isolated and have formed new relationships, both with other writers and members of other Maine labor unions, said Pryor, the Windham writer.

''That is part of the strike that has been unexpected and has been wonderful for all of us,'' she said. ''The other unions have shown us a lot of kindness and support and have just given us greater context for what this strike means.''

In addition to the Maine Guild members, there are several Maine writers now living in Los Angeles, such as 25-year-old Lewiston native Lynsey Dufour, who is the script editor for ''The Young and the Restless.''

While Dufour looks for a part-time job as a waitress, production of the soap opera continues with nonunion writers who have crossed the picket line and are now creating the show's plot and dialogue.

She said many of the show's original writers won't watch now, finding it too painful to see the characters' personalities changing.

Dufour, however, keeps tuning in every weekday.

''It's kind of different to sit back,'' she said, ''and be that viewer again and wonder what's going to happen.''

Staff writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

tbell@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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20070110_Strike

Gordon Chibroski

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Thursday, January, 10 ,2008. John Lane is a film producer and is against the writers strike seen here at his office in Freeport.

Tom Fontana
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Tom Fontana

AP

Tina Fey, Amy Poehler
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Tina Fey, Amy Poehler

AP

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A finished Oscar statuette is photographed in the studio at R.S. Owens & Company in Chicago on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008, The two month walkout by members of the Writers Guild of America has disrupted the beginning of the awards show season, forcing the cancellation of the Golden Globes ceremony and possibly jeopardizing the Academy Awards presentation scheduled Feb. 24. Oscar broadcast producer Gil Cates has vowed there will be a televised show, one way or another. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

AP

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Tony Shalhoub MONK on USA Network Photo Credit:copyright Andrew Eccles/USA Network

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Staff photo by Jeff Pouland ON THE RED CARPET: Richard Russo, author of "Empire Falls," and his wife Barbara Marie Russo walk down the red carpet to the premier of the HBO production "Empire Falls" at the Waterville Opera House Wednesday.

  


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