Secret Agent Men
BY NOW YOU PROBABLY KNOW about the survey by Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business Management in which two out of three Americans say they back the Writers Guild of America in its dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who said the findings weren’t surprising “when the only real information the public is getting is from sound bites and the issues are as complex as these.” A WGA board member had a different take on what the survey says, arguing that the problem for the producers wasn’t complexity, but credulity. “Four times as many Americans believe in UFOs as believe AMPTP president Nick Counter,” he joked to me.
Such was the poisonous film noir atmosphere permeating the first two weeks of the WGA strike that was starting to shut down Hollywood. So, it was like the feel-good plot of Disney’s Enchanted when, suddenly, on the night of November 16, I picked up rumors that the two sides had agreed to head back to the bargaining table. Within hours, back-to-back identical bulletins were issued first by the WGA and then by AMPTP: “Leaders from the WGA and the AMPTP have mutually agreed to resume formal negotiations on November 26. No other details or press statements will be issued.”
So how did this much-hoped-for but unexpected turn of events happen? First, Counter earlier that week quietly dropped a demand that his side wouldn’t go back into negotiations until the writers strike was stopped or at least suspended.
Then the WGA’s president, Patric Verrone, visited Washington, D.C., and, joined by his SAG counterpart, Alan Rosenberg, met with members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation, lawmakers on committees overseeing the television industry as well as three FCC members. Though Verrone isn’t asking for hearings into strike-related issues, rumors keep reaching me about possible Senate or House hearings into the business practices of the Big Media conglomerates that own most of the major Hollywood studios and networks. Certainly Verrone has expressed opposition to any further consolidation in the media industry, an issue that is heating up in Congress. And he and Rosenberg were kvetching around Congress that Big Media is helping muzzle striking writers seeking news coverage of their side of the story.
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But the real heavy lifting took place during a secret meeting at Creative Artists Agency partner Bryan Lourd’s home. Attending were Verrone and chief WGA negotiator Dave Young along with Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger and (Fox) News Corp.’s No. 2 Peter Chernin, among others. Lourd refuses to comment on what went on, but he deserves tremendous credit for getting both sides talking again. No one should be naive enough to think that either side would go back into talks if it didn’t suit their current agendas. But certainly anyone who knows Lourd, one of the most successful Hollywood agents ever, is well aware that the honey-tongued CAA Southerner can talk anybody into anything, even his rivals.
The secret confab was the culmination of days of back-channel efforts by two agents. (I broke the news on my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com.) As I reported then, a partner in a major tenpercentery was having “much conversation” with WGA negotiating committee topper Dave Young. I can tell you now this was Lourd. At the same time, United Talent Agency’s Jim Berkus was talking to AMPTP president Counter. Berkus had made the first phone call to set up a November 8 meeting at the WGA’s Fairfax headquarters between the WGA and key partners in Hollywood’s five major agencies. “The first call went from Jim Berkus to [William Morris’] Jim Wiatt to [Endeavor’s] Rick Rosen to [CAA’s] Bryan Lourd to [ICM’s] Chris Silbermann,” a source says. With negotiations at a standstill, the agency partners offered to do anything possible as a “collective resource.”
While Lourd met with Young, and Berkus with Counter, the other agents fanned out to speak to individual moguls as well. Then all the tenpercenters agreed to have Lourd take over the diplomacy “because he had the best relationship [with Young] and the biggest bat [CAA’s dominance representing talent],” an insider told me.
It took two weeks of schmoozing (even if Bryan is a goy), but the meeting at Lourd’s home finally happened. The agent also has been helping both sides “refine” the issues at hand.
When I wrote on my Web site that Hollywood should “Bring on the Agents,” it was because I had confidence they could help provide the basis for progress toward a settlement. Meanwhile the strike keeps taking its toll. IATSE told me that the number of TV shows that have shut down because of the writers walkout was 50 at the beginning of last week. And, by the end, that number was more than 100.
EVEN THE MOVIE STUDIOS are starting to feel pain. United Artists announced last Friday night that the studio has postponed production on Oliver Stone’s Pinkville, about the 1968 My Lai massacre, because of the writers strike. Both Stone and scribe Mikko Alanne are WGA members and couldn’t make the revisions on a script. “UA didn’t want them to cross the line and neither did they,” an insider explained.
Also, the cast and crew had been hired and a start date in Thailand set for December 10 for what was going to be a three-month shoot. Some of the crew members were already there and then, suddenly, the Thai government was being notified, sets were struck, hotels reservations canceled, etc. Talk about money out the window for a fledgling studio that’s part of a troubled major (MGM).
Some films are in retreat because of the strike. But Hollywood studios, which already have a full slate for 2008, aren’t even close to a crisis. Still, the studios have been boasting how they planned for this writers strike. Well, no one can plan for everything.
For instance, Angels & Demons, the next in best-selling novelist Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code franchise for Sony, was the pic for which Akiva Goldsman bagged $4 million — a new high for a screenwriter scribbling an adaptation of a book. Yet, from what I hear, star Tom Hanks isn’t happy with the script he’s been presented, and the start of filming has been pushed back right now from March to a release date of May 15, 2009 at the earliest.
Warner Bros. just called off a February production start on Shantaram, the Mira Nair–directed adaptation of the Gregory David Roberts novel that was to star Johnny Depp. Eric Roth had been doing the rewrite. The Weinstein Co., meanwhile, postponed Nine, the Rob Marshall–directed musical that was slated to start production in March with Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard starring. In both cases, the scripts weren’t ready. After Michael Tolkin wrote the screenplay for Nine, TWC engaged Anthony Minghella to do a polish, but he was able to put in only three days of work before the writers guild struck. Catherine Zeta-Jones dropped out of the movie.
Other films affected by the strike include 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage, helmed by Roland Emmerich; Paramount’s Transformers 2 from DreamWorks; the Reese Witherspoon starrer Morning Glory, produced by J.J. Abrams for Paramount; and Universal’s State of Play, starring Brad Pitt (again the star isn’t happy with the script). Some of these have been pushed off their 2008 dates to 2009.
Then there are the picket lines on locations where Hollywood studios are shooting their films. The biggest took place in pastoral and usually peaceful Palisades Park in Pacific Palisades when striking Hollywood writers disrupted a Paramount movie starring Eddie Murphy, who left and did not come back for the rest of the day.
WGA sources claimed that he stopped in a show of unity with the writers once a picket line was set up. “The WGA definitely hearts Eddie today. Big cheer for him,” a Writers Guild source told me. But Paramount refuted that, claiming Murphy left because his 8-year-old co-star was “upset and crying” over the chanting picketers. So, which was it — Eddie Murphy, the working writers’ hero? Or Eddie Murphy, the fuck-it-I’m-out-of-here-after-a-crappy-day? Maybe it doesn’t even matter.
Like him or not, there’s no doubt that Murphy is one of a handful of Hollywood icons who have incredible leverage in this town because moguls love to be loved by their stars. But whether he or any other major stars (George? Angelina?) are willing to use that clout for a cause bigger than themselves is a huge question.
Meanwhile, the nonstar actor is getting screwed as well. I saw a “force majeure” letter from NBC Universal received last week by a Hollywood talent agency on behalf of an actress on a TV series. From what I can glean, the casts of The Office, 30 Rock, Bionic Woman and Battlestar Galactica, to name just a few shows on NBC and the Sci-Fi Channel, were informed that their contracts had been suspended. The reason is that Universal Media Studios opted to exercise what’s known as the force majeure clause in its Screen Actors Guild agreements. The clause is normally invoked when productions are shut down wholesale for one reason or another, and usually that reason is something unforeseen or external to the production (say an earthquake, stock-market crash .?.?. a writers strike). However, NBC and Sci-Fi are applying pretzel logic to the clause, both suspending actors without pay and trying to hold onto them contractually.
Other studios have done the same: at Sony Pictures TV, the casts of Fox’s Til Death and CBS’s Rules of Engagement have been suspended too. And letters, although not specifically citing force majeur, went out this week from Fox. That the studios are suspending actors without pay and not outright terminating their contracts, which prevents them from finding work elsewhere, has SAG royally pissed off. Per SAG’s agreement, studios can opt to suspend members for five weeks with half pay; suspend them with full pay; or release them from their contracts. Even if the actors are fired, they’re supposed to be immediately rehired under their original contract terms once production recommences. But a member of the Battlestar Galactica cast told me: “When our agents and managers phoned business affairs for clarification, they were told that we are on suspension without pay. We are not terminated. We are on hold to BSG with no pay in perpetuity until the strike is over.
“When the strike does end, Universal/Sci-Fi will then decide whether they want to bring the show back or let us go. Until that time we are in first position with BSG and will have to clear any other project with Sci-Fi/Uni. They are about to get a lot of calls from SAG lawyers.”
I smell a brawl brewing.
THERE’S ANOTHER FIGHT in the making over what’s rapidly being perceived as Variety‘s anti-WGA articles. When the strike is over, and it will be one day far into the future, media critics may have a field day dissecting the slanted coverage and total fabrications Variety is reporting in these early days of the strike. But for now, I’ll do it.
How much longer is parent company Reed Business going to allow Variety to keep doing stories that purport to show that, just two weeks into the strike, the WGA’s resolve is withering, and/or its writers are going back to work, and/or even its late-show hosts are going to double-cross their scribes? Just one problem: Those stories are either totally fabricated or highly exaggerated, made worse by inflammatory headlines not borne out by the articles.
For instance, Monday’s Variety article by Dave McNary about the resumption of WGA-AMPTP talks contains this doozy: “But during the past week, WGA leaders were also quietly pressured by a number of high-profile screenwriters and showrunners to get back to the table.” Uh, Earth to McNary: It wasn’t the WGA but the AMPTP that kept refusing to go back into talks. Even his article about the joint WGA-AMPTP announcement that settlement talks would resume right after Thanksgiving was worded in such a way as to imply that the WGA has been refusing to go back to the bargaining table, instead of the other way around: “Striking writers have agreed to resume negotiations with studios and networks on Nov. 26.” The trade later changed its wording.
Needless to say, the scribes claim to be canceling their subscriptions en masse. How bad is the ill will? A striking writer e-mails me from the NBC picket line that Variety had boxes filled with issues delivered to the big protest outside NBC in Burbank where Democratic presidential contender John Edwards appeared. “Their plans may have gone a little awry. I saw stacks of Variety being tossed on the sidewalks, thrown into trash cans, torn up and stepped on by the picketers who, to a person (within my earshot at least) dissed the magazine and its skewed coverage.
“Variety seems to have forgotten that writers can read, too.”