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
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AFTER WEEKS OF SNIPING, a strike suddenly seemed less certain when the alliance abruptly rescinded a controversial proposal to revamp the entire residual agreement.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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