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
Now the Hollywood moguls are eating their own. I’ve learned that the Big Media CEOs are furious at MGM chairman Harry Sloan for allowing Tom Cruise’s United Artists to negotiate an “independent agreement” with the WGA to get back up and running with writers again. True, both UA and the WGA took great care to make clear that “the agreement is unique to United Artists Films and does not involve Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. (MGM), a shareholder of United Artists Entertainment.” Doesn’t matter: The moguls are pissed anyway because it makes them look not unified.
The news now means that small and struggling UA has a leg up on every other Hollywood studio because it will be able to hire striking writers. This is to date the first so-called side deal cut by the WGA with a movie studio as part of the guild’s “divide and conquer” strike strategy. Granted, given that UA consists of only six executives and very limited movie development, it’s more of a symbolic gesture than a significant development. But it buoyed the spirits of striking screenwriters, who’ve felt left out of the strike that has focused so much on TV-related issues to date.
The deal was hammered out under the utmost secrecy by UA’s Paula Wagner, who has long been Cruise’s producing partner, and WGA leaders Dave Young and Patric Verrone. Guild sources said it definitely helped during negotiations that Cruise is a longtime SAG member and Wagner also started out as an actress before she became an agent, then producer, and then UA studio mogul. Of course, UA was originally founded some 86 years ago by movie greats Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, who also wanted to get out from under the moguls’ control.
A big battle for the hearts and wallets of consumers was won in the high-definition format wars when Warner Bros. announced that it will release its titles exclusively in Blu-ray beginning later this year. Warner Bros. was always considered the big fish to be landed by one side or the other, because the studio has been producing its high-def DVD titles in both formats. According to WB’s announcement, the choice was made “in response to strong consumer preference for the Blu-ray format.” The news was so stunning that the North American HD-DVD Promotion Group promptly canceled a costly dog-and-pony show timed for the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, citing the need to regroup after the “impact” of the Warner Bros. decision. Oops.
I’d been hearing rumors for months that Warner Bros. had been offered in the neighborhood of $250 million by the lobbying group for “promotional consideration” to go exclusively with HD-DVD. Less lavish, but still big, payments already had been offered by the HD-DVD side and accepted by both Paramount (I was told $50 million) and DreamWorks Animation (I was told $100 million). Then, this Christmas, consumers were lured directly by dirt-cheap Toshiba HD-DVD players advertised heavily by Wal-Mart for $98.87 (and $15 HD movies . . .). Electronic retailers also discounted the higher-priced Blu-ray players, though not nearly as much.
But the Warner Bros. choice means Sony has gotten its revenge. After its Betamax lost out to VHS because of price cutting all those years ago, the electronics giant this time around has ensured that its newest hardware format is the dominant one. “The addition of WB brings exclusively Blu-ray’s Hollywood market share to 70 percent. For Universal and Paramount/DreamWorks, any continued [noncontractual] support for HD-DVD exclusively is about corporate and executive ego and not the consumer or the marketplace,” a Blu-ray source told me, somewhat smugly.
The Hollywood CEOs claim they’re not being hurt by the writers’ strike or their own refusal to go back into contract negotiations with the WGA. Yet the biggest hard-liner of all the moguls, Barry Meyer, is now overseeing layoffs at his studio. Letters were sent out in compliance with federal and California law that require employers to give notice of staffing changes. “Due to the ongoing WGA work stoppage, some studio divisions will have to lay off employees. We regret the impact this will have on our employees, and we hope to bring them back to work once the WGA strike ends,” a studio spokesperson says. Those laid off will be notified as soon as Monday, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be rehired after the strike. But how incredibly callous of Meyer to announce the layoffs the same day that he upped one of his high-priced film execs, Kevin McCormick, who was promoted to president of production of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Stewart’s Sour Grapes
Audience members attending Jon Stewart’s first Daily Show back from strike hiatus got an earful of complaining from the host about his dealings with the Writers Guild. Jon’s jawing came prior to taping when he and audience coordinator Teri Abrams talked about how they joined with the cable channel Comedy Central to lobby the WGA to accept the same side deal that the guild made with David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants in order to return with his writing team intact. But Stewart told the audience that he was turned down by the WGA last Thursday. It was apparent that Stewart was completely flummoxed by the guild’s decision and questioned the logic behind the rejection. But what the audience wasn’t told is that the two situations are very different: Comedy Central, a division of Viacom, owns Stewart’s show, whereas Worldwide Pants owns The Late Show With David Letterman, as well as the Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. Also, Viacom, of course, is one of the eight biggest members of the AMPTP, which is refusing right now to bargain with the WGA for a new contract. So, fine, if Stewart claims he believes what the writers want is important and he supports them all the way. But for all intents and purposes, he’s now just another late-night scab.
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