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Strike Happy

AS THE STRIKE DEADLINE draws near, the nauseous stench of flop sweat has saturated movie and TV writers’ rooms, sound stages, and executive suites. The reason for the malodorous cloud currently hanging over Hollywood has less to do with fear over the fires raging around the outskirts of Los Angeles than with the combustible relationship between the Writers Guild and the moguls. Pissing off the studio and network big shots used to calling the shots in this Industry is the hard line taken by the WGA’s membership, which has voted by more than 90 percent to let its leadership call a labor action anytime after the current contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers ends on October 31. And pissing off the Schmucks With Underwoods, as that shithead with money, Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner, so unaffectionately dubbed the scribblers long ago, has been the arrogant determination of his Big Media successors to use the strike as an excuse to rethink their business models.

Excuse me for gagging, but I’m not sure which is worse: the smell of stinky armpits or the odor of caged animals. Ugh, every three years, the writers and producers who occupy the same pen known as Hollywood act like monkeys flinging their feces against the walls. Both sides make menacing noises to indicate they’re going to bite the hands that feed them. They don’t care that the last WGA strike, in 1988, dragged on for 22 weeks and dragged down the Industry by a half-billion bucks. If that happens again, then I say drag everyone away from the bargaining table and put them in the same padded cell.

The latest news is that Nick Counter, AMPTP’s chief negotiator, wants all of the negotiating-committee members at Thursday’s session, no matter what. That’s leading the Writers Guild of America side to think maybe something’s gonna give.

But the order comes because Counter claims only a dozen people, out of the 40 who should have been there, were at Monday’s face-to-face session, including “not a single exec from WGA East.” This isn’t true: WGAE was repped at Monday’s session by screenwriter and negotiating-committee member Terry George. I hear the moguls’ negotiating team wanted two days of caucus time afterward because they’re working overtime to devise a new combination of alternatives and options to present to the WGA, as I reported on DeadlineHollywood Daily. It would include a stepped-up new-media plan that would give writers a share of digital revenue, make it retroactive, and also allow for a few years’ study and refinement. The reason for the full-attendance request is that the bigwigs want as many from the other side as possible to hear the producers’ POV up close and personal, not just the usual militants but also the bigtime writers/hyphenates who have enormous sway within the guild’s 12,000-strong membership.

Despite news reports about a sour meeting Monday where neither side budged, I’ve heard that session actually went pretty well. “WGA proposals were actually addressed, and people were pleasant,” a source from the writers’ side told me. But, immediately after the talks, both AMPTP and the WGA side issued scathing statements. This posturing is exactly why nothing that’s happened before now matters. Because all the huffing and puffing and, most of all, bluffing going on didn’t penetrate the executive suites and palatial homes of the top Hollywood moguls, who have been letting their lower-level lackeys keep track of the negotiations to date and don’t even have a meeting planned among themselves.

It’s not like their Lifestyles of the Reviled and Useless are going to suffer if, say, the writers suddenly get a decent percentage of new-media residuals, one of the thorniest issues being negotiated. Jeez, I’m sick to death of hearing the studio and network big shots repeat that old saw about residuals, the gist of which Lew Wasserman supposedly summed up as “My plumber doesn’t charge me every time I flush the toilet.” But go back and read my “Screenwriters in the Shit” column in the L.A. Weekly from a year ago to know just how horrible things are out there for formerly successful writers who can’t get arrested in the biz now that they’re aging. They’re selling the family home, taking kids out of private school, moving out of Los Angeles, because their film careers are over. For them, residuals are keeping the mortgage paid and food on the table.

Already, the majors are quietly announcing no more overtime as well as hiring freezes on temps, contractors and consultants (excluding those approved in conjunction with capital projects). And producers have started making quiet calls to persuade certain writers to finish scripts or start new ones as “consultants.” Others in Hollywood are tightening their belts as well. Agencies are cutting expenses even deeper and warning secretaries and assistants there could be layoffs or a total shutdown. Some tenpercenteries are asking everyone to take a 20 percent cut in salary and even bandying about that dreaded term “force majeure” to avoid having to pay agents in the event of a long strike. And all the ancillary businesses that depend on Hollywood will be hurt; those mom-and-pop stores and services — everything from dubbing houses to flower shops and nail salons — will disappear or get bought out at bargain prices.

 

SINCE THE HAVES WILL REALLY decide if this strike gets averted, and the Have Nots all know it, let’s first see where the moguls stand. Since most of the majors own movie studios, networks and production companies, the TV industry is the engine driving this strike — it’s where the writers believe they have leverage — and not the film biz (which was able to plan for a walkout well in advance and has plenty of projects in the can). My reporting shows that many moguls actually welcome a strike because they believe the 2007-08 TV season is dead on arrival anyway. But I don’t understand the willingness of the networks to so readily give up eyeballs that may never return to broadcast television. Consider all those young dudes who made Halo 3 the biggest entertainment release ever.

The WGA’s TV writers, who make up the vast majority of the guild membership, however, have been clearly operating under an illusion. Intense pressure is coming from them to strike sooner rather than later in order to hurt the prime-time business to the greatest extent possible, and a walkout even as late as January 1 could mean that TV prime time even for the 2008-09 season is toast. The TV writers argue that waiting until January 1 would allow most shows to bank six to eight more scripts, and the only real way for the WGA to wield palpable power is to shut down the TV season as soon as possible. Now I find out that this would play into the hands of the moguls ready to give up the season entirely and rely on programming more cheap reality-TV and game shows than scripted series.

Individually, I see the moguls breaking down into only two groups, not the three groups from the previous strike. So instead of hawks and moderates and conservatives, there are now only hawks and conservatives:

Hawks: Peter Chernin (News Corp./Fox), Bob Iger (Walt Disney/ABC), Barry Meyer (Warner Bros.), Jeff Zucker (NBC Universal), Michael Lynton (Sony Pictures Entertainment).

Conservatives: Les Moonves (CBS), Ron Meyer (Universal), Brad Grey (Paramount), Amy Pascal (Sony Pictures Entertainment), Harry Sloan (MGM, which also reps United Artists in this), Jeffrey Katzenberg (DreamWorks Animation, and the most moderate of the bunch).

Sloan’s struggling MGM, with all its financing and box-office problems, needs a strike right now like a hole in the head. Katzenberg wants to play the hero who brokers a compromise, but he doesn’t wield the clout he used to when he headed Walt Disney Studios, so his fellow moguls won’t let him grab headlines.

Zucker, with GE threatening to sell the entertainment unit, can’t get mired in more onerous financial formulas that are going to make his business even worse.

Lynton wants to be a moderate but, like Zucker, needs to lower up-front costs and, like Zucker, answers to a very strong-willed, diversified parent company that demands that the entertainment unit now posting a return on investment in the low single digits at least get back to high single digits (since no one expects double digits anymore).

As for Chernin, Iger, Meyer, Moonves, and also Zucker, they see so many new shows tanking in the ratings and/or going over budget and/or having production problems this TV season that they feel this is as good a time for a strike as any, especially when even returning hits like NBC’s Heroes, ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, CBS’ CSI: Miami and Cold Case are losing their ratings mojo.

As one mogul told me, “We can get rid of the overhead and regroup and rethink everything. If we were having a great year, it might be different. But we’re not, and this is like an automatic do-over.”

Here’s another shocker: There have been no meetings held, and none are planned, by the moguls for the moguls — lots of communications by telephone but no brainstorming sessions at one of their sumptuous homes. I don’t doubt they’re too busy throwing Obama fund-raisers and saving the environment to worry about the writers.

Little wonder the moguls are losing the PR war in this pre-strike period. The studio and network bigwigs thought their recent renouncement of residual rollbacks was a “really big deal” concession that would get the writers in a positive frame of mind. So they were shocked that the WGA spun the concession to members as not much of a concession at all, since it never should have been on the table in the first place. “We made a major move, and they’re kicking sand in our face,” a mogul told me.

 

So the big-shot moguls want to get their unfiltered viewpoint across to the WGA. Katzenberg is floating the idea of “putting a face out there to show we’re human” — presumably his. But other suggestions include holding a press conference, sending one or several studio and/or network bigwigs to the negotiating sessions, starting a “mogul blog” to focus on the strike, or Web streaming a Q&A session with those network and studio chiefs who feign sincerity on an AMPTP Web page better than others.

What else is missing is a Big Name (to help solve this mess, as Lew Wasserman used to do; but he’s now worm food). Since then, überlawyer Ken Ziffren ended the last WGA strike. Bob Daly, the ex–Warner Bros. chairman, stopped a WGA walkout from even starting in 2001. This time around, the names I’m hearing include those two plus Ziffren’s law partner, Skip Brittenham, and even Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. Also being floated are ex-Sony and ex-Paramount bigwig Jonathan Dolgen and ex-Viacom and ex-Universal mogul Frank Biondi, who both know the business inside and out. You know, and I know, the decision will be made (if at all) on the basis of who will offend the least number of people involved, moguls and writers alike.

Meanwhile, the 5,507 ballots cast by the WGA members was the highest turnout in the guild’s history — and underscored the passion and solidarity of the writers to win concessions from AMPTP. WGA West president Patric Verrone, himself an animation writer, stated after the vote, “Writers do not want to strike, but we are resolute and prepared to take strong, united action to defend our interests.” The writers badly want the studios and networks to understand the degree to which they’re a unified guild, in no mood to be pushed around on the dozens of other rollbacks remaining besides residuals. The writers’ negotiating team, for PR purposes alone, needs to bring members a very real new income stream this time around, and not play dead on the most difficult issues like new media just because it’s hard to bargain. True, no one knows right now what new-media revenues will be, but the guild’s current rallying cry is “Remember the DVDs!”

This WGA team isn’t gonna fold like the previous administrations, because this time around the writers are really in charge, not the hyphenates. (I still marvel at the chutzpah of John Wells, who won the WGA presidency in 1999, even though he was the moneybags TV producer behind ER and West Wing. He then split the Writers Guild into haves and have-nots, and failed in 2001 to stand firm on any of the hard issues, ensuring in the process that no strike would interrupt his own wheelbarrows of cash. Then, shortly after the WGA pact was negotiated, Wells wouldn’t honor the provisions in his West Wing writers’ contracts for increased pay and promotions in the third season.)

There’s no question that the current WGA leadership — Patric Verrone, Dave Young, John Bowman — outsmarted the moguls, who thought there wouldn’t be a separate WGA labor action until June, when SAG’s contract came due. The producers primarily planned for that timing, so studios and networks found themselves suddenly scrambling to lock down projects and productions they thought had several more months of unfettered development before a walkout. Worse for the moguls are the strict strike rules laid down by the WGA organizers that would shut down all production. No wonder AMPTP’s Nick Counter threw a temper tantrum and threatened a lawsuit. The writers are onboard this as well: At Friday’s meeting, no writers asked questions trying to find ways to wiggle (more like, weasel) out of the consequences of a strike. But there was also a chilling recognition that the producers can still tell the WGA to go fuck themselves, strike authorization or not.

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