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WGA's Biggest Enemy 

A fed up writers’ union hopes to appeal to a sense of fair play. In Hollywood

Wednesday, Oct 24 2007
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“You get asked by the network to do another season,” the 35-year-old Nemec says, “you feel like you are getting traction.” But with his union nudging closer to a potential strike against major studios well equipped to weather a long work stoppage, he says, “The notion that a strike could pull the rug out from under you is very daunting.” As he thinks about the prospect of 100 or more people who work on his show suddenly unemployed around the holidays, he adds, “It certainly doesn’t help me sleep at night.”

Nemec just wants to work. But if the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers decide to fight, it could not only cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars — it could also derail the careers of thousands.

Marshall Goldberg, a writer who, unlike his colleagues, found writing work after the long and painful 1988 writers’ strike, sees a walkout as almost inevitable, saying, “To make an omelet you have to break some eggs.” Still, he’s worried about the “sacrifices and costs. It’s not just dollars, it’s career momentum.”

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The writers’ key goals, as they approach the October 31 expiration of the three-year agreement between the guild and the alliance, are to resist numerous rollbacks sought by the producers to make sure they get a fair shake on new media, and to rectify the WGA’s hasty acceptance, years ago, of a pay formula for writers’ work that went to video. That deal provided the writers residuals based on just 20 percent of gross sales. Distributors kept the lion’s share of the money from gross sales — an acknowledgment of the then-high price of manufacturing videos. But as profits for video, DVD and now downloads have shot up and the price of manufacturing has dropped dramatically, the writers’ cut has stayed the same.

“The guild’s loudness today comes from a sense of being screwed on the residual formula for video,” an insider with extensive negotiation experience says. With the Internet promising to revolutionize content delivery, writers want to be sure they don’t get screwed again.

BUT THIS MIGHT BE THE YEAR the 12,000-member Writers Guild starts a fight it can’t win. The writers, headed by the intelligent idealist Patric Verrone, face a group of producers who not only have the resources to withstand a long strike, but are also being led by the tough Nick Counter, the broken-nosed, hard-bargaining, longtime lead negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The last time the guild went on strike, nearly two decades ago, it cost Hollywood at least $500 million. Jack Kyser, an economist with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, claims it cost as much as $1 billion in ’88. A strike now could cost the industry and Los Angeles much more. But aside from the staggering potential cost, studio-side attorneys, some labor lawyers and some guild members see the timing of this fight — calculated to hurt the TV pilot season — as a mistake for a union with a weak track record and few labor allies.

“A strike would be disastrous,” says Craig Mazin, a movie writer whose blog, the Artful Writer, has been a flash point for pre-strike banter among guild members. “The worst-case scenario is that you go on strike and come back to a worse deal than you were originally offered.”

Hard talk by Verrone, the guild’s president, may have backed the writers into a corner they can’t get out of. Sources on both sides say the Harvard-trained lawyer knows the intricacies of the business, and is no dolt at the negotiating table. Even so, Verrone, with his dyed-black hair and small frame, is described as idealistic and racked with resentment toward other Harvard grads who enjoy far greater success in Hollywood than he. With Futurama and the Simpsons to his writing credits, Verrone is an accomplished writer. But he hasn’t seen the career success of other past WGA presidents such as John Wells, the mind behind West Wing.

His idealism may be what is driving union members to take up bullhorns and join picket lines. That seems to be what the members want now, after being represented by guild leaders like Wells, a big-time producer who was far less inclined to resist studio management — or take to the streets. In 2005 Verrone was elected with 68 percent of the vote, and in September he was overwhelmingly re-elected. (Although only 20 percent — nearly 1,300 — of eligible writers actually voted.)

Also last month, the Writers Guild provided some splashy public support to four game show writers after Fox refused to pay them under the guild’s minimum basic agreement — which doesn’t apply to many game shows. Hoping to press the issue, 40 guild members donned red union T-shirts and screamed into bullhorns in support of writers for Temptation, as Verrone chatted up the few reporters who covered it.

The Temptation picketing was the latest twist in the guild’s failed two-year campaign to organize reality and game show writers, including a widely publicized incident in which the guild encouraged 12 participants in America’s Next Top Models to walk off the set. They did, and never got their jobs back.

Last month, Verrone stood squinting under a low morning sun, the chanting rising behind him. “They [Fox] have to know that they can’t broadcast nonunion properties,” he insisted. Verrone denied that he was using the picketing of Fox to rev up Los Angeles writers in anticipation of a strike vote. Yet in the month since, the PR wings of the guild and the AMPTP have agreed on only one thing: the shortcomings of their negotiations.

AFTER WEEKS OF SNIPING, a strike suddenly seemed less certain when the alliance abruptly rescinded a controversial proposal to revamp the entire residual agreement. But their offer of an olive branch was quickly followed by the guild’s 90 percent strike authorization vote, with a notable turnout of more than 5,500 voting members.

With the writers seemingly eager to take a tough stand, observers wonder if the guild is really prepared to do battle. Their resources are thin, with the union’s strike fund, meant to help 12,000 writers, standing at a meager $9.2 million. Furthermore, the writers union has no ally ready to support it among the other Hollywood unions. The Directors Guild, for example, includes many members who are also members of the WGA. But rather than fight for the writers, the DGA generally settles negotiations with the AMPTP. And because the WGA decided to surprise the producers with their early labor action, rather than waiting until next year when the Screen Actors Guild contract expires, the guild doesn’t have SAG’s strength to draw on.

All this means that if the writers go on strike, they’ll do so on their own. “Simply put, writers can’t shut down the town,” the insider says. Moreover, the guild this year has been mired in a lawsuit over its mishandling of foreign levies, in which writers — including scribes not represented by WGA — are owed substantial money they have never received. (See “Double-cross at the WGA,” L.A. Weekly, May 3-9.)

The guild is further weakened by the fact that today’s networks are parts of huge corporations with deep pockets, more so than in 1988. Additionally, a slew of reality TV producers are ready to jump in and fill airtime — even if reality isn’t as profitable in the long term as scripted TV. Until 2000, no reality series had ever topped the Nielsen ratings. In three of the seven years since, reality TV has been No. 1, the last two dominated by the nonunion American Idol.

Meanwhile, the studios are stockpiling scripts, which will allow them at least some breathing room before they turn to reality TV. “Every company stockpiled scripts unless they were stupid,” a studio attorney says. But Howard Fabrick, former vice president and counsel at the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (before the association became the alliance in 1982), says many shows are only one or two scripts ahead, meaning the studios will feel the burn if a long strike hits.

Even so, rumblings persist that a strike could actually leave the writers with a weaker deal. It’s not a writer’s market out there — something acknowledged even by Nemec, a guy living the rarefied Hollywood writer’s life. He’s one of the lucky ones, enjoying success with his ABC scripted series. But, he says with a lighthearted chuckle, he has already come up with some ideas for reality TV.

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