By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
From Joe Gillis to Barton Fink, the more prevalent image of the lowly screenwriter as an underpaid and humiliated dreamer is as familiar a Hollywood archetype as the cigar-chomping producer or riding-crop-waving director. But today's top writers command $1 million or more per film script, and they are hardly naive about the financial mechanics of their trade. Television writer Terry Curtis Fox (Diagnosis Murder) scoffs at writers' perceived lack of business acumen. "We're actually very sophisticated about contracts and making deals," he says, "because we've been at this for so long."
Still, although it's been a long time since Irving Thalberg famously wondered, "What's all this business of being a writer? It's just putting one word after another," writers have remained untouchables in Hollywood's caste system, and they bear an almost atavistic resentment over it. They bristle at the idea that they should somehow not be paid for hard work and point out that their profession's $84,000 median income applies only to the 52 percent of the WGA who are counted as employed during the year. The figure doesn't reflect the cyclical, flush-or-broke nature of their profession.
Like Bob Eisele, Fox started out as a playwright and enjoys a certain level of comfort. Outside the window of his rustic writing cottage, squirrels bounce across the oak and bay branches of Beverly Glen, a view that does not necessarily sit well with a public deeply suspicious of intellectual labor -- especially well-paid intellectual labor. The WGA claims that a quarter of its members earn under $30,000 annually and that less than half earn enough to live by their writing alone. Nevertheless, if there's a strike all the writers will walk, and, if they are joined by SAG when the actors' contract expires July 1, the studios will be utter ghost towns. The last time the WGA struck, in 1988, the union, torn by internal dissent, came out on the losing end.
There have already been fissures among the writers. In January, WGA member William Richert (Winter Kills) wrote an angry guest column for Variety attacking high-salaried guild negotiators like John Wells and John McLean, calling them a small group of "writer/corporate employees" who, Richert said, would have the most to gain by the guild's demands. More recently, WGA member Dick Wolf, the writer-producer of Law & Order, publicly attacked Wells' handling of the talks -- which brought out counterattacks by writers already seething at Wolf's rushing to completion extra episodes of his shows to please NBC and Showtime. "Dick Wolf is someone who strongly identifies with his captors," says screenwriter Larry Gross (48 Hrs., True Crime). TV writer-producer Jorge Reyes (Resurrection Blvd.) is blunter: "I think Dick Wolf is an asshole and a lackey of the studios for badmouthing John Wells -- it's infuriating that someone would break ranks and speak against his union's president."
One of the weapons the WGA clearly values is the July 1 expiration of the actors' contracts. "There has never been a successful writers' strike that wasn't conjoined with an actors strike," says Gross. "Nobody doesn't know this. That's why 1988 was not successful -- actors were not on strike then." This is why observers from SAG and AFTRA (which would strike at the same time) have been sitting in on the WGA-AMPTP talks this year -- to coordinate strategy more closely with the WGA.
Yet the 98,000-strong SAG, which is the WGA's potential strike partner, suffers far more internal discord than the WGA, and in some important ways the writers may be relying too heavily on the stamina of actors for maintaining a long strike this year. It was only last fall that SAG and AFTRA ended their bruising, six-month walkout against the producers of commercials; a union committee set up afterward to investigate and punish scabs began its work in February and will continue to sift through 1,500 cases at least through July.
Beyond strike matters is the ongoing factional war pitting the allies of new SAG president William Daniels against longtime SAG activists and officeholders. There is also a sense of organizational drift, evidenced by SAG's postponement of its talks with the Association of Talent Agents bargaining committee, and its seeming inability to find a new national executive director or inaugurate needed structural reforms -- like paring down its 105-member national board -- and to decide once and for all whether to merge with AFTRA.
SAG's preparations for its big day with the moguls clearly lags behind the Ã¢ WGA's. It wasn't until February that it chose its lead negotiator -- Brian Walton, who had led the WGA talks in 1988 -- and as of this writing SAG still hasn't presented its proposals to the studios, even though negotiations between the two sides are scheduled to begin May 10. When it does, it will probably also seek increased residuals, along with a demand to make binding SAG rules and contracts for the increasing number of overseas shoots.
At the WGA's March 1 news conference, members of that guild's negotiating team were joined by SAG's president, the veteran actor William Daniels (St. Elsewhere, Boy Meets World), who told the press he was there to "show support and solidarity for our sister union." But Daniels was visibly disappointed by the turn the writers' talks with the AMPTP had taken. On that afternoon at least, he did not appear to be a man who was looking forward to leading his second strike in as many years in office.
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