By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In theater terms, the talks are now in their second act, although the "bottom of the ninth inning" might better convey the nervous sense of drama. The entertainment industry has suffered the same as the rest of the country in the economy's southward slide; the Disney organization, which recently announced the layoffs of 4,000 employees, is now planning additional layoffs and downsizing within its animation division, while AOL Time Warner has axed 2,400 employees. When the talks broke off, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan ended an official silence to urge the parties involved, for the sake of the city's financial future, to avoid a strike -- a request clearly aimed at the union, since it is not the studios who are threatening to walk out. Also coloring the picture is an unprecedented surplus of both feature films and television shows that have been rushed into completion ahead of schedule, giving some -- though by no means most -- studios a stockpile of product to distribute over the next half year.
Still, there are new movies and fall TV programs that need to be shot during the summer, which means that a work stoppage will trigger a public-relations battle royale for the hearts and minds of the popcorn-munching, remote-waving heartland. The AMPTP will have to employ all its creative-accounting skills to explain, among other things, how its multibillion-dollar industry cannot afford to give the writers the extra penny they are seeking for every videocassette and DVD sold.
But the writers have to overcome a popular perception that they belong to a "Gucci union" of overpaid dilettantes living in sea-cliff villas. Pundits have had a field day pointing out the supposed absurdity of well-paid writers walking picket lines -- Time columnist Joel Stein envisioned WGA members hiring Mexican immigrants to stand picket duty for them. (Stein's magazine is part of AOL Time Warner, which has more than a literary interest in satirizing the writers' demands.) Similarly, a London Financial Times feature on Los Angeles' precarious economy and the pending strikes advised its readers that chat-room tales of Californians owning three refrigerators (one each for food, wine and beer) were not all that exaggerated.
"I think the great victory of multinational capitalism has been to get working people to identify against themselves," says WGA member Robert Eisele, whose working-class California twang and good-ol'-boy goatee oddly belie his steely rhetoric. A TV writer-producer who describes himself as "an old street fighter and '60s socialist," Eisele is no Gucci-ite. "I grew up in a blue-collar Altadena neighborhood," he says, "the kind where Okies would ruin a woody to make a pickup for their surfboards." Eisele, who produces Showtime's Resurrection Blvd., began his career as a playwright and got his big start in the industry as Michael Mann's story editor for Crime Story, before writing and producing The Equalizer and several feature-length dramas.
"There's a misunderstanding of what Hollywood is," he says. "There are middle-class people who make their living exclusively on Hollywood and need residuals. And there's a Hollywood proletariat -- people who write one thing and have gotten their medical and are happy as clams, and then they don't write anything and lose their medical and get sick. There's suffering, too."
Eisele lives in a comfortable neighborhood not far from Hancock Park. The hardwood floors of his living room gleam in the morning light; the walls are hung with art, some of it by his teenage son. It bears a strong resemblance, in fact, to the dreamy homes less-well-off Americans see in movies, and Eisele acknowledges that the comparative affluence of many working screenwriters (whose median income is $84,000) has already been used against them in op-ed pieces and letters to editors.
"We're crybabies who are making all this money and driving expensive cars," he says, describing these attacks. "And guess who's writing these articles? Other writers, some of whom hate Hollywood and would never try to do it and are at home writing the Great American Novel -- and some who would very much like to be here."
II. RIFTS AND FISSURES
The Writers Guild is a labor union that represents over 8,000 professional writers -- the storytellers who provide the world with unforgettable movies, television programs and interactive games.
--John Wells, president, WGA west
The WGA has come a long way since it operated, as the Screen Writers Guild, out of an office on Hollywood Boulevard now occupied by a Gen-Y clothing store. The original union was founded in 1933 by radical playwright John Howard Lawson, a Communist who would eventually be prosecuted and blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten. The guild was, during the 1930s and '40s, strongly influenced by Lawson and his party comrades, and the government's hounding of the Hollywood Ten following World War II grew into a studio exorcism of the screenwriting profession and its prominent, militant wing.
The May Day expiration of the WGA's current contract, however, is merely an irony of the calendar: If many of the guild's early activists considered themselves American Marxists, today the WGA defines itself by the much folksier sobriquet "America's Storytellers." It's an appellation that evokes the screenwriter as a grandfatherly figure telling tall tales on a front-porch rocker or beside a banked fire. Of course, Grandpa's stories never suffered from second-act sag or required several rewrites and a polish. Nor, certainly, did Grandpa ever demand residuals.