Will the [Crappy] WGA Deal Go Down? 

Don't be surprised if writers revolt over this one

Wednesday, Feb 6 2008

AT NOON LAST MONDAY, striking writers picketing at CBS's Genesee Gate saw a truck from Yellow Transportation Inc. stop short of the entrance. The Teamster driver then approached the WGA strikers.

Driver: "I thought you guys had an agreement."

Picketers: "Not yet."

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Driver: "Well, then, they're not getting their delivery today."

That driver was not alone in thinking the writers' strike was all but over. After all, even Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s number two and the point man for the moguls in the negotiations, was telling Hollywood pals at Super Bowl XLII that "The strike is over."

Leading up to this week, I'd been reporting exclusively on DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com that day after day of back-channel discussions had resulted in progress. Then came Friday, February 1, which proved a "very productive day," I was told — so good that one of my sources dared to say he was now "very optimistic" about a settlement. Because of the media blackout, no one was giving details, but I've managed to ferret out some of what went right that Friday, after so much between the WGA and the Hollywood CEOs had gone wrong.

In recent weeks, a ridiculously large number of Hollywood power players — from major feature-film writers and TV show runners, to agents and managers and lawyers, to executives and moguls — had been on the phone urging media such as I to pressure the Writers Guild to take the same deal that the Directors Guild accepted last month as is and call off the strike before the Oscars. I heard smart arguments, and I heard nonsensical arguments (like that of the bigtime agent who described the TV show runners as "the plantation owners" and the TV writers who worked for them as "the cotton pickers, who should just damn well be grateful they have health and pension and get back to work already").

But who was putting equal pressure on the moguls? Certainly not Variety, or the Los Angeles Times, or The New York Times. I found it outrageous that every mainstream media outlet influential in show biz from the outset took the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers' shill position that the DGA deal was a "great" deal because it had been negotiated by "grown-ups" and the WGA "brats" better take it or else. Truth is, it's been the moguls who have acted childish and churlish the whole time. Worse, the CEOs had disengaged from the process, with occasional exceptions, and hadn't met together even once. (Unlike in the 1988 writers strike, when there was truly a sense of urgency and the moguls regularly huddled in Bel Air living rooms.) The way I saw it, a better use of what little time remained before the Academy Awards on February 24 would be to pressure the moguls to use the DGA deal as a good start.

Judging from the thousands of e-mails I received, opinions within the WGA were running 3-to-1 that the DGA deal, after its sketchy details were announced, looked both promisingly incremental and fundamentally excremental. Incremental because it did address issues that the Hollywood CEOs long withheld from their faux negotiations with the WGA, like an electronic sell-through formula. And shitty because the deal's ad-supported streaming payout was still insulting.

Worse, the moguls seemed to fashion the DGA deal in such a way as to undermine and eventually eradicate the old residual system from the new streaming formulas. The majority of the DGA members get no direct residual payments, but the big guns of the DGA all get profit participation on their projects. That leaves only 20 percent of that guild's membership for whom residual payments are a lifeline. So the DGA deal could play well for the CEOs in the press and put pressure on the WGA leadership to take it or look unreasonable by comparison. But it's a false argument — when it comes to Hollywood deals, one size does not fit all.

So chief negotiator John Bowman and entertainment lawyer Alan Wertheimer led the WGA's effort to adapt the DGA deal to writers' needs. First, Bowman met with Peter Chernin, Warner Bros. chief Barry Meyer and CBS boss Les Moonves to break the ice back on January 7 at a meeting where, supposedly, the CEOs said they were sorry for acting like assholes during phases 1 and 2 of the negotiations. From that confab, the WGA-mogul talks were reborn. Then Wertheimer, who has long repped some of the major motion-picture and TV scribes, broke down what was being offered and presented the ramifications the way any lawyer does in a negotiation. "He was kind of a hero," an insider told me.

AS THE INFORMAL TALKS STARTED, I kept worrying that the moguls would make good on their threats to not reward the WGA for striking (giving them better terms than the directors and thereby making the helmers look weak). Strangely, the Hollywood CEOs were startled by the distrust they found among the WGA leadership. Not only had weeks and months of dealing with Nick Counter, and believing AMPTP promises to put New Media terms on the table, poisoned the overall atmosphere; in addition, the moguls had promised but then refused to revisit the weak formulas for home video or DVD negotiated years ago. So why should the WGA believe their pledge to revisit those for New Media in three years?

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