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Tinsel-Town Rebellion 

Writers, moguls and Hollywood’s day of reckoning

Wednesday, Apr 25 2001
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Photo by Jack Gould

I. A ROOM WITH A POV . . .
"THERE'S SUFFERING, TOO."

"Last week a writer came into my office -- a drunk -- a man who's been floating around for years just two steps out of the bughouse -- and began telling me my business."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon

The big glass and brick building at Third and Fairfax used to be a bank. When this bank went out of business, the Writers Guild of America moved in. Its library-quiet, tastefully low-keyed interior is a far cry from the hurly-burly of many union headquarters -- the frosted-glass doors suggest an Ian Schrager hotel more than a place where contracts are haggled over and strikes threatened. Yet since January 22, this has been the site of a battle between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over a contract that, as of this writing, may end in a strike.

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This top-floor, 60-by-24-foot war room overlooks Farmers Market; the Hollywood sign can also be seen peeking above CBS's Television City on Beverly Boulevard. Guild negotiators don't see much of this view, though, since they sit with their backs to the window -- across from a 19-member delegation, led by AMPTP president Nicholas Counter, which includes Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Barry Meyer, Disney president and COO Robert Iger and Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen.

From their very start, the talks were accompanied by a news blackout in which negotiators from the two sides clammed up before both press and rank and file, and were uncharacteristically complimentary to one another during the few times they surfaced in public. That all changed on March 1, when the guild's delegation sat down to discuss the AMPTP's latest counterproposal. Just as the alliance began submitting its new offer across the table, WGA executive director John McLean was handed a note: Jeffrey Katzenberg, who sits on the studios' negotiating team, had called a 2 p.m. press conference at Warner Bros. -- the studios were going to declare the talks stalled.

According to Michael Mahern, a WGA co-chairman for the negotiations, McLean asked Counter if the note was correct.

"I must admit that Nick Counter had been caught completely unaware," Mahern says. "I believe the word is flummoxed."

When Counter said his side knew nothing about the press conference, the guild members thanked him and walked out. Later that afternoon, the two sides blamed each other for the stalemate at separate news conferences, yet both retained their collegial tone and yet again complimented each other on their professionalism. If nothing else, Hollywood's biggest bloodbath since the 1988 writers' strike was going to be its politest.

That evening, the WGA threw a reception at Eurochow in Westwood for the nominees of its annual writing awards. Instead of statuettes, however, the party chatter under the big white dome, amid plates of battered shrimp and glazed walnuts, was mostly about the breakdown in the talks and what lay ahead. The strike that had routinely been dismissed by both sides as hypothetical was suddenly becoming less so each day. When negotiations resumed on April 17, a strike seemed all but inevitable.

Everything the writers want falls under two headings: money and respect. Their proposed Minimum Basic Agreement demands an increase in royalties on video and DVD sales and a new system of residuals for cable broadcasts and foreign-market programming, as well as from such formerly fledgling networks as Fox, WB and UPN. Creatively -- this is the respect part -- the writers seek what amounts to professional parity with their counterparts in the Directors Guild of America: They want the right to be present on film sets, in screening rooms and at premieres, and they want to limit so-called "possessory credits" -- those above-the-title announcements that introduce the director with, "A Film by . . ." -- to an annual 10 percent of all WGA-covered films.

Lately, there have been a number of hopeful rumors and predictions about back-channel progress that will help avert a strike. But this optimism ignores the considerable difference in the two sides' basic calculations -- a chasm that grew ever wider during the negotiations hiatus. The WGA says its three-year package will cost the studios $99.7 million, while the AMPTP insists the final bill will be $227.4 million -- a figure it claims will snowball into an industrywide cost of $1.6 billion once other unions start to get the same hikes as the writers. (The AMPTP declined numerous requests for interviews for this article.) Unless someone has forgotten to carry over a few 1's, those numbers aren't likely to resolve in the last week before the May 1 deadline.

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