Recently I have been bombarded by requests from the Chinese-language press for my take on the Hollywood strike.
"Since when did I turn myself into a de facto spokesman for America's entertainment industry?" I asked. "Shouldn't this be the job of whoever is sent from Tinseltown?"
However, I assured my peers that there is nothing to worry about. Your blockbuster movies and TV dramas will keep rolling out of the pipeline for years, I told them. The only shows that are immediately affected by the strike are television talk shows, which don't have much of an audience here. Even if they were aired in China, they would get only negligible ratings because jokes and gags based on daily news in the United States are the hardest to transcend cultural and language barriers. For the same reason, The Simpsons could never get the kind of reception here as Friends.
Many in China who care about the strike subconsciously wanted me to back up their sympathy for the weak - in this case, the writers. It is something in human nature. You always take the side of the weak, a mentality conditioned by Hollywood products.
Actually it's not that simple, I explained. Both the writers and the producers have a reason to hold their ground. As Hollywood movies and television shows seem to rake in endless streams of profits, writers, as the so-called "source of great stories", have a right to share in the financial success. But what about supporting actors, cinematographers, costume designers, et al? They all participated in the creation of the good story.
On the other hand, producers say movies don't really make that much money. The studios depend on new media, such as DVDs, to break even. Besides, if writers obtain a certain percentage of the profit, it'll get the ball rolling and everyone will ask for a piece of the growing pie.
The funny thing is, big stars and big directors - and of course, producers themselves - get most of the money, even from an unprofitable project. They get so-called "participation deals", in which they share a significant portion of the revenue, sometimes as much as 25 percent in total, leaving even a high box-office film in a sea of red ink.
Where do they get this kind of power? In short, from us. We swarm to movies with A-list stars and directors. If we chose what to watch from the quality of the scripts, the writers would have more bargaining chips on their shoulders. But how many people would go to the cinema simply to enjoy ingenious plots and witty dialogues? Only after watching a bad movie do we complain about the lack of decent writing. And that happens mostly to Zhang Yimou's costume epics.
To quote a Chinese proverb, when we observe a phenomenon like the American script writers' strike, or the French transport workers, we are really "watching a fire from across the river or the sea". Truth is elusive. Our attempts to identify the good guys or the bad guys often turn out to be frustrating.
Our traditional notion is simple as black and white: one party is ripping off the other. As the theory goes, the exploiter is exploiting the exploitee. In reality, both parties are resorting to legal means to protect their legal rights. It is important that people know their rights and the proper channels to safeguard them. A strike may be more "visual", but ultimately it is a form of negotiation by using brinkmanship. We need to rid ourselves of old thinking before we rush to the defense of either party.
(China Daily 11/17/2007 page4)