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Disaster in the Making

THE LONGTIME HOLLYWOOD MAXIM is that he who loses his temper first loses. Well, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers pitched a hissy fit Wednesday after days and weeks of defiance and needling by the Writers Guild of America and its members. What did the moguls expect: that they could issue an ultimatum and then walk away from the post-strike negotiations (as News Corp. No. 2 Peter Chernin and the other Big Media CEOs had planned all week and told their pals privately), and the writers wouldn’t portray them as total douche bags?

First came comedy writers John Aboud and Michael Colton penning a hilarious spoof at www.amptp.com of the AMPTP’s official site, www.amptp.org. (Yeah, the mental midgets repping networks and studios hadn’t thought to buy that site too.) It looks almost identical down to those Did You Know? factlets. (Satirical examples: Six out of 10 non–Judd Apatow movies never recoup their original investment . . . “Writer” comes from the Latin term meaning “unhygienic and doughy.”) This is what happens when writers have way too much free time on their hands.

Then came all the breaking news that the AMPTP’s newly hired flackery, Fabiani & Lehane — bigtime consultants to Democratic candidates from Bill Clinton to John Kerry — is starting to lose union clients because it accepted the gig fighting the striking Hollywood writers. In a single day, F&L was fired by SEIU Local 99 in Los Angeles (made up of education workers who include teacher’s aides, cafeteria workers and crossing guards) and then by Change to Win (a coalition of seven top unions, including the SEIU, the Teamsters and the Laborers), which explained: “As you know, Change to Win and its affiliates stand solidly behind the writers in their struggle for fairness, so we did not think twice about this decision.”

Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, who like to call themselves the Masters of Disaster, have created quite a disaster themselves. Their fingerprints are all over the AMPTP’s strike PR. I’ve learned that F&L was responsible for naming the studios’ and networks’ offer to the WGA the “New Economic Partnership.” It also offered the suggestion that the CEOs stop calling the writers’ side “negotiators” and start branding them “organizers” because it sounds more commie. It also wrote a downright menacing news release announcing the AMPTP was stopping all bargaining on Friday, December 7, to satisfy the moguls’ apparent craving for combat, not conciliation.

The moguls’ PR flacks may be fond of talking tough, but in the entertainment biz, the powers that be who bully usually end up losing their jobs because no one on the creative side wants to work for them. On the other hand, the CEOs made themselves look like putzes with their whiny missives sent out Wednesday. They do know this strike will eventually end, and then they’ll have to face the writers, right? It’s especially embarrassing now that the scribes know that the moguls followed almost to the letter a despicable script that they themselves conceived and wrote earlier in the week.

That’s why I’m insisting that the moguls need to take back these negotiations from their loathsome spinmeisters and their labor lawyers and their lapdog Nick Counter and start meeting face-to-face with a self-selected group of Hollywood’s top show runners and screenwriters and work this thing out.

As for continuing to demonize the WGA’s Patric Verrone and Dave Young and John Bowman, sure, they’re being assholes. I too have written that the strike never should have happened. I too have posted that jurisdiction over reality TV or animation writers isn’t a central issue of this strike, not with New Media formulas so vital to their members’ incomes. But the WGA leaders can’t be expected to stop pushing on contract terms like those (which have been longtime parts of their proposals) without some inducements from the moguls beyond “because we told you to.” Get real.

LET ME RECAP WHAT HAPPENED that December 7 Friday night when the much-anticipated resumption of talks ended with the AMPTP storming out on the striking WGA.

At 2:35 p.m., the AMPTP put a so-called revised proposal, including a list of demands, on the bargaining table to flesh out its ridiculously branded New Economic Partnership. The WGA told me that the AMPTP’s latest New Media terms were the same old same old. But agent Bryan Lourd, considered an objective mediator in these talks, believed that the new proposal bettered the studios’ and networks’ terms on the table for New Media. It included an improved, albeit slightly, streaming deal for theatricals.

But the shit really hit the fan when the AMPTP side arrogantly issued demands for the negotiations to continue. It ordered the WGA to immediately take reality-TV and animation jurisdiction off the table, remove the no-strike clause in their contract (meaning that once their own strike is settled, the writers must cross picket lines if the Screen Actors Guild goes on strike), stop insisting on a fair-market-value test (aimed at keeping the studios and networks from selling entertainment product back to themselves at a lower price than they could get from an outside company), and no longer demand a distributor’s gross definition on New Media (which the WGA argues could gut all its New Media proposals).

After the AMPTP ultimatum was made, the WGA negotiators went to caucus inside a hotel room. Faced with what to do about the AMPTP’s take-it-or-leave-it demand, “We were still going to make a counterproposal in the hopes of keeping the negotiations going,” recounted WGA negotiating-committee member David A. Goodman. “However, we were all pretty clear that they were setting us up.” The reason the WGA felt that was because of what I had reported the day before: Peter Chernin, CBS’s Les Moonves, and some of the other Hollywood moguls all week were looking for any excuse to blame WGA negotiators for “blowing it” and then walk out of the talks.

After about an hour and a half, the AMPTP claims it sent Lourd to the hotel room to ask what was happening, and he was told by the WGA that they were preparing a counterproposal. The AMPTP says it asked Lourd to find out if that counterproposal contained anything from the list of demands the networks and studios wanted the WGA to take off the table, and that the WGA negotiators wouldn’t say.

But the WGA’s Goodman disputes the AMPTP’s account. “As we were discussing what to do, [AMPTP president] Nick Counter came looking for David Young. He asked him, in the hallway, ‘Are you going to take those things off the table?’ David said we were working on our counterproposal, but wanted to present everything at once, [and] he wasn’t going to negotiate in the hallway, and said we would be making a counterproposal very soon, that night.”

The AMPTP version is that, at 6:05 p.m., Counter knocked on the hotel-room door trying to find out some indication from Dave Young what the WGA was going to do, especially on the reality/animation jurisdiction and no-strike issues. Counter brought Bryan Lourd along “as a witness,” the AMPTP told me. “David Young answered and was visibly angry.”

But the WGA’s Goodman says this is wrong. “David was not ‘visibly angry’ . . . All the conversations in the hallway were amicable, if tense.” Bryan Lourd told people privately that he counseled the WGA negotiators that “this was their maximum moment of leverage” and urged them to try to “trust” the AMPTP, but the WGA told him they couldn’t at this point.

“It was an ultimatum. They said unless we take everything off the table except streaming and ESTs that they’re not going to negotiate anymore and basically they’re leaving until we’ll remove all those other things,” a WGA board member explained. “We’re not accepting an ultimatum. We’re here to bargain and to talk.”

Both sides agree on what Counter then said to Young: “In that case, we are leaving and breaking off negotiations. When you send us a letter confirming you will take all these items off the table, we will make an appointment to resume negotiations with you.”

The AMPTP claims the WGA hotel-room door slammed shut. But Goodman contends that “No door was slammed.”

Then AMPTP president Nick Counter hand-delivered a “we’re walking out” letter to the WGA’s executive director, Dave Young, which was cc’ed to Bryan Lourd.

The writers said their side considers that the talks are still ongoing and insists that they won’t stop negotiating. In short, things are back to being a big fucking mess.

I now predict the CEOs will make a public show of deciding to open talks with the Directors Guild right away and thus try to screw the striking writers. And I predict the AMPTP won’t return to negotiations with the WGA until February at the earliest after declaring force majeure. Please, oh please, prove me wrong.


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