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Tinsel-Town Rebellion

Photo by Jack Gould

I. A ROOM WITH A POV . . .
"THERE'S SUFFERING, TOO."

"Last week a writer came into my office -- a drunk -- a man who's been floating around for years just two steps out of the bughouse -- and began telling me my business."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon

The big glass and brick building at Third and Fairfax used to be a bank. When this bank went out of business, the Writers Guild of America moved in. Its library-quiet, tastefully low-keyed interior is a far cry from the hurly-burly of many union headquarters -- the frosted-glass doors suggest an Ian Schrager hotel more than a place where contracts are haggled over and strikes threatened. Yet since January 22, this has been the site of a battle between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers over a contract that, as of this writing, may end in a strike.

This top-floor, 60-by-24-foot war room overlooks Farmers Market; the Hollywood sign can also be seen peeking above CBS's Television City on Beverly Boulevard. Guild negotiators don't see much of this view, though, since they sit with their backs to the window -- across from a 19-member delegation, led by AMPTP president Nicholas Counter, which includes Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Barry Meyer, Disney president and COO Robert Iger and Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen.

From their very start, the talks were accompanied by a news blackout in which negotiators from the two sides clammed up before both press and rank and file, and were uncharacteristically complimentary to one another during the few times they surfaced in public. That all changed on March 1, when the guild's delegation sat down to discuss the AMPTP's latest counterproposal. Just as the alliance began submitting its new offer across the table, WGA executive director John McLean was handed a note: Jeffrey Katzenberg, who sits on the studios' negotiating team, had called a 2 p.m. press conference at Warner Bros. -- the studios were going to declare the talks stalled.

According to Michael Mahern, a WGA co-chairman for the negotiations, McLean asked Counter if the note was correct.

"I must admit that Nick Counter had been caught completely unaware," Mahern says. "I believe the word is flummoxed."

When Counter said his side knew nothing about the press conference, the guild members thanked him and walked out. Later that afternoon, the two sides blamed each other for the stalemate at separate news conferences, yet both retained their collegial tone and yet again complimented each other on their professionalism. If nothing else, Hollywood's biggest bloodbath since the 1988 writers' strike was going to be its politest.

That evening, the WGA threw a reception at Eurochow in Westwood for the nominees of its annual writing awards. Instead of statuettes, however, the party chatter under the big white dome, amid plates of battered shrimp and glazed walnuts, was mostly about the breakdown in the talks and what lay ahead. The strike that had routinely been dismissed by both sides as hypothetical was suddenly becoming less so each day. When negotiations resumed on April 17, a strike seemed all but inevitable.

Everything the writers want falls under two headings: money and respect. Their proposed Minimum Basic Agreement demands an increase in royalties on video and DVD sales and a new system of residuals for cable broadcasts and foreign-market programming, as well as from such formerly fledgling networks as Fox, WB and UPN. Creatively -- this is the respect part -- the writers seek what amounts to professional parity with their counterparts in the Directors Guild of America: They want the right to be present on film sets, in screening rooms and at premieres, and they want to limit so-called "possessory credits" -- those above-the-title announcements that introduce the director with, "A Film by . . ." -- to an annual 10 percent of all WGA-covered films.

Lately, there have been a number of hopeful rumors and predictions about back-channel progress that will help avert a strike. But this optimism ignores the considerable difference in the two sides' basic calculations -- a chasm that grew ever wider during the negotiations hiatus. The WGA says its three-year package will cost the studios $99.7 million, while the AMPTP insists the final bill will be $227.4 million -- a figure it claims will snowball into an industrywide cost of $1.6 billion once other unions start to get the same hikes as the writers. (The AMPTP declined numerous requests for interviews for this article.) Unless someone has forgotten to carry over a few 1's, those numbers aren't likely to resolve in the last week before the May 1 deadline.

 

Perhaps even more important, the union can't credibly back down from its economic and creative demands, some of which the writers saw go down in flames during the 22-week strike of 1988. The leadership of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and its TV-radio twin union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), is in a similar bind, having emerged from last year's contentious strike against advertising agencies amid charges that it didn't obtain many more benefits after six months than it got in the strike's initial stages. There is also no way the WGA leadership can now justify the past three and a half months of statements of principle, stirring town-hall meetings and Web-site declarations if it cannot deliver on a good portion of its promises. â

In theater terms, the talks are now in their second act, although the "bottom of the ninth inning" might better convey the nervous sense of drama. The entertainment industry has suffered the same as the rest of the country in the economy's southward slide; the Disney organization, which recently announced the layoffs of 4,000 employees, is now planning additional layoffs and downsizing within its animation division, while AOL Time Warner has axed 2,400 employees. When the talks broke off, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan ended an official silence to urge the parties involved, for the sake of the city's financial future, to avoid a strike -- a request clearly aimed at the union, since it is not the studios who are threatening to walk out. Also coloring the picture is an unprecedented surplus of both feature films and television shows that have been rushed into completion ahead of schedule, giving some -- though by no means most -- studios a stockpile of product to distribute over the next half year.

Still, there are new movies and fall TV programs that need to be shot during the summer, which means that a work stoppage will trigger a public-relations battle royale for the hearts and minds of the popcorn-munching, remote-waving heartland. The AMPTP will have to employ all its creative-accounting skills to explain, among other things, how its multibillion-dollar industry cannot afford to give the writers the extra penny they are seeking for every videocassette and DVD sold.

But the writers have to overcome a popular perception that they belong to a "Gucci union" of overpaid dilettantes living in sea-cliff villas. Pundits have had a field day pointing out the supposed absurdity of well-paid writers walking picket lines -- Time columnist Joel Stein envisioned WGA members hiring Mexican immigrants to stand picket duty for them. (Stein's magazine is part of AOL Time Warner, which has more than a literary interest in satirizing the writers' demands.) Similarly, a London Financial Times feature on Los Angeles' precarious economy and the pending strikes advised its readers that chat-room tales of Californians owning three refrigerators (one each for food, wine and beer) were not all that exaggerated.

"I think the great victory of multinational capitalism has been to get working people to identify against themselves," says WGA member Robert Eisele, whose working-class California twang and good-ol'-boy goatee oddly belie his steely rhetoric. A TV writer-producer who describes himself as "an old street fighter and '60s socialist," Eisele is no Gucci-ite. "I grew up in a blue-collar Altadena neighborhood," he says, "the kind where Okies would ruin a woody to make a pickup for their surfboards." Eisele, who produces Showtime's Resurrection Blvd., began his career as a playwright and got his big start in the industry as Michael Mann's story editor for Crime Story, before writing and producing The Equalizer and several feature-length dramas.

"There's a misunderstanding of what Hollywood is," he says. "There are middle-class people who make their living exclusively on Hollywood and need residuals. And there's a Hollywood proletariat -- people who write one thing and have gotten their medical and are happy as clams, and then they don't write anything and lose their medical and get sick. There's suffering, too."

Eisele lives in a comfortable neighborhood not far from Hancock Park. The hardwood floors of his living room gleam in the morning light; the walls are hung with art, some of it by his teenage son. It bears a strong resemblance, in fact, to the dreamy homes less-well-off Americans see in movies, and Eisele acknowledges that the comparative affluence of many working screenwriters (whose median income is $84,000) has already been used against them in op-ed pieces and letters to editors.

"We're crybabies who are making all this money and driving expensive cars," he says, describing these attacks. "And guess who's writing these articles? Other writers, some of whom hate Hollywood and would never try to do it and are at home writing the Great American Novel -- and some who would very much like to be here."

 

II. RIFTS AND FISSURES

 

The Writers Guild is a labor union that represents over 8,000 professional writers -- the storytellers who provide the world with unforgettable movies, television programs and interactive games.

--John Wells, president, WGA west

The WGA has come a long way since it operated, as the Screen Writers Guild, out of an office on Hollywood Boulevard now occupied by a Gen-Y clothing store. The original union was founded in 1933 by radical playwright John Howard Lawson, a Communist who would eventually be prosecuted and blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten. The guild was, during the 1930s and '40s, strongly influenced by Lawson and his party comrades, and the government's hounding of the Hollywood Ten following World War II grew into a studio exorcism of the screenwriting profession and its prominent, militant wing.

The May Day expiration of the WGA's current contract, however, is merely an irony of the calendar: If many of the guild's early activists considered themselves American Marxists, today the WGA defines itself by the much folksier sobriquet "America's Storytellers." It's an appellation that evokes the screenwriter as a grandfatherly figure telling tall tales on a front-porch rocker or beside a banked fire. Of course, Grandpa's stories never suffered from second-act sag or required several rewrites and a polish. Nor, certainly, did Grandpa ever demand residuals.

From Joe Gillis to Barton Fink, the more prevalent image of the lowly screenwriter as an underpaid and humiliated dreamer is as familiar a Hollywood archetype as the cigar-chomping producer or riding-crop-waving director. But today's top writers command $1 million or more per film script, and they are hardly naive about the financial mechanics of their trade. Television writer Terry Curtis Fox (Diagnosis Murder) scoffs at writers' perceived lack of business acumen. "We're actually very sophisticated about contracts and making deals," he says, "because we've been at this for so long."

Still, although it's been a long time since Irving Thalberg famously wondered, "What's all this business of being a writer? It's just putting one word after another," writers have remained untouchables in Hollywood's caste system, and they bear an almost atavistic resentment over it. They bristle at the idea that they should somehow not be paid for hard work and point out that their profession's $84,000 median income applies only to the 52 percent of the WGA who are counted as employed during the year. The figure doesn't reflect the cyclical, flush-or-broke nature of their profession.

Like Bob Eisele, Fox started out as a playwright and enjoys a certain level of comfort. Outside the window of his rustic writing cottage, squirrels bounce across the oak and bay branches of Beverly Glen, a view that does not necessarily sit well with a public deeply suspicious of intellectual labor -- especially well-paid intellectual labor. The WGA claims that a quarter of its members earn under $30,000 annually and that less than half earn enough to live by their writing alone. Nevertheless, if there's a strike all the writers will walk, and, if they are joined by SAG when the actors' contract expires July 1, the studios will be utter ghost towns. The last time the WGA struck, in 1988, the union, torn by internal dissent, came out on the losing end.

There have already been fissures among the writers. In January, WGA member William Richert (Winter Kills) wrote an angry guest column for Variety attacking high-salaried guild negotiators like John Wells and John McLean, calling them a small group of "writer/corporate employees" who, Richert said, would have the most to gain by the guild's demands. More recently, WGA member Dick Wolf, the writer-producer of Law & Order, publicly attacked Wells' handling of the talks -- which brought out counterattacks by writers already seething at Wolf's rushing to completion extra episodes of his shows to please NBC and Showtime. "Dick Wolf is someone who strongly identifies with his captors," says screenwriter Larry Gross (48 Hrs., True Crime). TV writer-producer Jorge Reyes (Resurrection Blvd.) is blunter: "I think Dick Wolf is an asshole and a lackey of the studios for badmouthing John Wells -- it's infuriating that someone would break ranks and speak against his union's president."

One of the weapons the WGA clearly values is the July 1 expiration of the actors' contracts. "There has never been a successful writers' strike that wasn't conjoined with an actors strike," says Gross. "Nobody doesn't know this. That's why 1988 was not successful -- actors were not on strike then." This is why observers from SAG and AFTRA (which would strike at the same time) have been sitting in on the WGA-AMPTP talks this year -- to coordinate strategy more closely with the WGA.

 

Yet the 98,000-strong SAG, which is the WGA's potential strike partner, suffers far more internal discord than the WGA, and in some important ways the writers may be relying too heavily on the stamina of actors for maintaining a long strike this year. It was only last fall that SAG and AFTRA ended their bruising, six-month walkout against the producers of commercials; a union committee set up afterward to investigate and punish scabs began its work in February and will continue to sift through 1,500 cases at least through July.

Beyond strike matters is the ongoing factional war pitting the allies of new SAG president William Daniels against longtime SAG activists and officeholders. There is also a sense of organizational drift, evidenced by SAG's postponement of its talks with the Association of Talent Agents bargaining committee, and its seeming inability to find a new national executive director or inaugurate needed structural reforms -- like paring down its 105-member national board -- and to decide once and for all whether to merge with AFTRA.

SAG's preparations for its big day with the moguls clearly lags behind the â WGA's. It wasn't until February that it chose its lead negotiator -- Brian Walton, who had led the WGA talks in 1988 -- and as of this writing SAG still hasn't presented its proposals to the studios, even though negotiations between the two sides are scheduled to begin May 10. When it does, it will probably also seek increased residuals, along with a demand to make binding SAG rules and contracts for the increasing number of overseas shoots.

At the WGA's March 1 news conference, members of that guild's negotiating team were joined by SAG's president, the veteran actor William Daniels (St. Elsewhere, Boy Meets World), who told the press he was there to "show support and solidarity for our sister union." But Daniels was visibly disappointed by the turn the writers' talks with the AMPTP had taken. On that afternoon at least, he did not appear to be a man who was looking forward to leading his second strike in as many years in office.

While none of the writers interviewed for this article spoke a word against the successes, or the management pasts, of their negotiators, potshots are already coming from the very people the WGA and SAG will need to stand by them in solidarity during a strike -- other unions.

III. HOLLYWOOD LABOR:
"A CORRUPT, SICK SETUP."

Everybody kidded about the Guild back and forth, but I felt that gagging was really the official court language and that underneath it all you could feel the friction growing.

--Budd Schulberg,

What Makes Sammy Run?

They say there are no more original stories to tell, but there is one overlooked drama that has all the narrative ingredients Hollywood so prizes. It is a period piece involving irresistible forces and immovable antagonists, a true story stained with violence, corruption and betrayal. To be sure, it is also a fable tinged with politics, but not so much as to scare away multiplex audiences; and besides the political stuff, this story would offer lots of gangsters, great vintage costuming and antique automobiles -- some of them set afire.

But this is also a story, it is safe to assume, that will never be filmed because it is about Hollywood itself and the power relations that govern it. It is the story of Tinseltown's labor wars, which reached a crescendo during the tumultuous 1945 strike instigated by the scenic painters of the Conference of Studio Unions. That strike resulted in a studio lockout, and its bitter legacy can be found in the way the industry does business to this day.

The CSU strike pitted labor not only against the studio moguls, but also against itself on a surreally Balkanized landscape of competing craft unions. In the end, the producers smashed the CSU, but only with the tacit acquiescence of the Teamsters and, more critically, with the fists and tire irons of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

IATSE's members are the Hollywood tool belts who perform all the "below the line" film work not done by Teamsters -- everything from building and painting sets, to rigging lighting, to operating cameras and projectors. The alliance has traditionally been the most politically conservative of Hollywood's craft unions, the heritage of having once been run by the Chicago mob and, later, by right-wing unionists who collaborated with the studios to break the leftist CSU. Not until the early 1960s did IATSE even open its ranks to people who weren't blood relatives of its members, let alone to minorities and women.

 

If SAG and the WGA do hit the bricks together, they will do so with the 100,000-strong IATSE already sniping at their backs. Its president, Tom Short, stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest when, in a February Daily Variety interview, he denounced the WGA's leaders as unrealistic and wrong-headed.

"If anybody thinks I'm going to support an institution that is trying to obtain unobtainable proposals in a collective-bargaining process . . ." Short left the rest of this thought to his interviewer's imagination. "I don't mind getting on a bus, but not on a bus without a driver that's going over a cliff."

Short dismissed the WGA's call to end possessory credits as utopian and unworkable, and flatly predicted that striking writers would scab.

Last year's SAG strike, according to an IATSE audit, cost West Coast members nearly 1 million hours of work, which may explain much of the IATSE leader's ire. Still, not all IATSE members follow their president. Short's interview, for example, was publicly denounced by Michael Everett, a lighting technician from IATSE Local 728 who heads an informal group called I.A. Progressives. Veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler has also challenged Short and his union's bureaucracy over safety and solidarity issues.

"I'm a board member of I.A. Local 600," the two-time Oscar-winning Wexler says. "During the commercial strike I proposed that we send a letter of solidarity to SAG. But our business agent said we weren't going to do that because screen actors didn't honor a picket line that we had in New York on a picture called Perfume." Indeed, SAG did not receive a syllable of support from Short until its strike was four months old, and then only after Bill Daniels appealed to him for help.

If the WGA and SAG hope to weather a prolonged strike, they will need to use all their communications skills to explain to both the public and their nonstriking Hollywood co-unions exactly why they are shutting down the industry. Robert Eisele remembers getting a profanity-filled phone call from an angry IATSE member during the 1988 WGA strike after Eisele had been featured in a TV news segment on the walkout.

"Instead of hanging up on the guy, I talked to him and said, 'Wait a minute, is it you against me or us against them?' That turned him around, and when we finished talking he realized we shouldn't be fighting each other."

IATSE has its own headaches with the studios, which have to do with corporate verticalization and the simultaneous de-Hollywoodizing of the industry, particularly the trend to shoot and do post-production work elsewhere. "One of the ways the producers are going about it," Wexler says, "is they are creating film schools all over the world and bringing in foreign workers as cheap labor. The way the unions are coping is by trying to work with Mexican unions. In Canada the I.A. has been spending money raiding NABET, the Canadian union, making enemies. It's a corrupt, sick setup and will not change as long as working people are in fear."

Last week, the head of Teamster Local 399, Leo Reed, expressed his own displeasure with the writers and actors, along with a hint that his union might not honor WGA and SAG/AFTRA picket lines. Reed's claim earned him front-page space in an L.A. Times lead article, which saw the Teamos' lack of solidarity as proof of a strike's untenability. What was not said in the Times' admiring coverage was that Local 399 and IATSE could not break a strike even if they wanted to, because the Teamsters can't write screenplays and I.A. members won't try their hand at acting. Without scripts and casts, these uninvolved unions won't have the opportunity to cross picket lines -- there will be no work to go to.

 

IV. MOGULS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE TABLE?

 

"Just wait till we join the Authors' League, comrades!" Sammy shouted. "Then all us downtrodden writers can become producers and we'll punish the producers by making them get down on their hands and knees -- and write!"

--Budd Schulberg,

What Makes Sammy Run?

The WGA has no illusions about who it's talking to across the table: Big Money. Big Anti-Union Money. Big Anti-Union Entertainment Conglomerate Money. This contract, in fact, marks the first time in the guild's history that most of the studios with which it is negotiating are owned by corporations that also own television networks. The sheer size of the new media behemoths has given speed to rumors that not only can they withstand a strike, but that they might be better off with one that would give them the pretext to dump unprofitable projects -- or divest themselves completely of the risky business of moviemaking.

 

Historian Gerald Horne (Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930­1950) dismisses these notions as part of a P.R. smoke screen. "While it is true that moviemaking's contribution has shrunk in importance to these conglomerates," Horne says, "the moguls are whistling past the graveyard when they say they can absorb a strike."

But a Hollywood in which megacorporations maintain interests in publishing, TV, music and film means that moguls must beat back the WGA's attempts to get their various subsidiaries to pay equal amounts in residuals to writers. This is why Rupert Murdoch would not be happy about a contract in which he can no longer sell an X-Files episode from his Fox TV network to his Fox Family cable network for a nominal sum and then not have to pay later residuals. Or why Disney's Robert Iger will not take kindly to having to pony up residuals for every show that ABC sells to the Disney Channel, its sister cable network.

And this is also why the writers cannot doubt the visceral antipathy of their opponents toward organized labor. Although it's been three years since Iger, as head of Disney subsidiary ABC Television, ordered a lockout of 2,700 members of the Communications Workers of America and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, it was only this past January that Murdoch was celebrating a National Labor Relations Board victory over the Newspaper Guild in the case of a Murdoch subsidiary that had acquired the assets of the New York Post Company from yet another subsidiary.

This is the immediate legacy of the Federal Communication Commission's Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed the old barriers standing in the way of information monopolies. After deregulation, Viacom Entertainment Group swallowed up CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, BET, Paramount Pictures, Infinity Broadcasting, UPN, the National Network, Country Music Television, Showtime, Blockbuster and Simon & Schuster, while Disney could boast of owning ABC Inc., the Disney Channel, Buena Vista Entertainment and both Lyric Street and Mammoth records, not to mention Anaheim Sports Inc., the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Anaheim Angels.

Ironically, the lament one sometimes hears among writers is not over the presence of such tycoons at the bargaining table, but over the absence of someone like Lew Wasserman, the Ur-mogul who co-founded MCA. In the old days, they say, Wasserman could knock heads during an impasse and order his side to compromise on a key point and eventually sign a contract. But the studio negotiating team, while containing titanic wealth and egos, has no such father figure to push the talks forward whenever the individual interests of the negotiators begin to rub up against one another.

"I don't think you can be contemptuous enough about how Hollywood conducts labor negotiations," Gross observes. "One side is greedy beyond all conceptualizing. The WGA is so self-deluding about its role that it requires a satirist like Waugh or Nabokov to capture it." â

Only by distinguishing themselves from the studio moguls can the writers gain the sympathy that most Americans reflexively feel for underdogs. But that might be tricky: Within the WGA many union members not only write and direct, but may also produce their own television shows. In most other labor situations, being any kind of producer with hiring and firing power makes the individual "management" and ineligible for union membership; in the new Hollywood, many men and women are professional hyphenates who not only invest money in projects and share in their profits, but, in the case of the present talks, also lead their unions in negotiations.

West Coast WGA president and negotiator Wells is also the millionaire executive producer of such hit TV shows as ER, Third Watch and The West Wing. The WGA west's executive director, John McLean, worked for CBS for 25 years, 18 of them as its West Coast vice president for industrial relations, during which time he negotiated more than 500 contracts for management. Robert Hadl, the union's negotiating consultant, was Wasserman's senior vice president at MCA and also sat many times on management's side of the bargaining table. And Brian Walton, who led the WGA talks in 1988 and is presently preparing to negotiate for SAG, recently engineered the consolidation of two producers unions into one stronger unit.

 

In the war of words and images that will break out in the event of a strike, it will be crucial for the writers to show they are not merely lower-salaried tycoons and that their demands have ramifications for everyone in Hollywood.

"The more power the writers gain," says historian Horne, "the more power there will eventually be for other workers below the line."

V. CREATIVE RIGHTS:
"LIKE FISHING WITH
DYNAMITE."

From the courtyard in the rear of the Story Department a two-ton truck emerged . . . "Do you see what it's loaded with?" he asked. "Scripts." He shook his head. "Taking them to the incinerator. Which is where they belong. A million dollars worth of literature."

--Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence

 

When you talk to Guild people about their demands for increased creative rights, they are likely to say, "We are changing the culture of Hollywood." This phrase, coined by John Wells, has become a rallying cry for writers striving to become full partners in the collaborative process of filmmaking. In the long run, the creative-rights proposals to win professional respect may prove to be the most revolutionary demands heard in Hollywood since SAG won its 1960 strike to have actors paid residuals for movies aired on TV.

In film, only a few select writers participate in "table readings" of scripts with the cast, consult with the director on the set, and attend premieres and press junkets -- and only at the director's largesse. In television, however, where directors are likely to be hired on to temporarily join a permanent team of writers and designers, such courtesies are the norm. The WGA goal, according to screenwriter Howard A. Rodman (Joe Gould's Secret, Rollerball), is to bring the writers' presence into parity with their television counterparts. "If you've ever been in the position of spending all day on the phone trying to get a pair of tickets to the premiere of a film you wrote, you'll know why we want these changes -- there's no sport in whining about it. In a world where the producer's girlfriend or boyfriend is invited to the screening, this should be a no-brainer. It's like fishing with dynamite."

The Directors Guild of America is horrified by these proposals, which have been around since the 1988 negotiations. "I think some folks at the Directors Guild are freaking out [over the idea] that we want to turn the film world into the TV world, where directors are just traffic cops," says Rodman.

Film writers insist that it is not their intention to undermine directorial authority and are fond of quoting Louis Malle, who once explained to producers why he had his screenwriter, John Guare, present for the shooting of Atlantic City: "If you have someone on the set for the hair, why would you not have someone for the words?"

The Malle quote appears prominently on the guild's Web site, and its sentiment was echoed by nearly everyone interviewed for this article. "I cannot imagine writing a script and not being available to make changes," says Terry Curtis Fox. "Because if a line doesn't work or is not fitting the actor's mouth, I'm the person who's most capable of changing it."

The WGA's planned restrictions on possessory credits has attracted the most press, although in technical terms it is the most purely symbolic of these demands, especially since the restrictions would grandfather in the rights of directors already accustomed to the credit. Possessory credits first began appearing with auteur directors like Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, and over time became increasingly routine. Now, even novice directors and "shooters" (non-writing directors) use them to slip their names into the consciousness of an audience whose attention might not hold past the opening credit roll.

Screenwriter Amy Holden Jones remembers when the director of her script for Beethoven was replaced by a new one after production had begun. It was only his second directing job.

"He did not develop the script or cast the movie," she recalls, "but he still got 'A Film by' credit."

While the flap over possessory credits may seem like a tussle over semantics, in Hollywood's macho, control-oriented environment it is another important talisman of power. To challenge it is to challenge the industry's cult of the director. No wonder, then, that in a "letter to DGA members," the guild's president, Jack Shea, flatly rejected as "totally unacceptable" the writers' proposal to can possessory credits.

The debate over the creative-rights issues may ultimately be moot, since the WGA's proposed wording now states that if a film's producer does not want the writer present, then the writer simply won't be present. (Originally the proposal's language stipulated that the director had to do the objecting, and before this, there was no provision for any objections at all.) But even with this loophole, the demands remain bones of contention between the two guilds.

 

"The producers have brilliantly managed it to get the directors and writers to fight each other," says Larry Gross, although most of the screenwriters interviewed for this article, such as Trey Ellis (The Tuskegee Airmen), showed little patience for the directors. "The most despicable behavior has been from the Directors Guild," Ellis says. "What is the problem with saying whiny Joe Schmo's Blood Bath, Part 6 doesn't come with 'A Film by Joe Schmo'?"

There have been some shrill predictions that ceding the creative issues to the writers would create a chaotic division of authority on film sets, reminiscent of forecasts made years ago that equality for women would result in unisexual toilets and school gym showers. "You have to understand how far in the basement creative-rights issues are," says Jones. "They're where women's rights were in the 1970s -- the group enjoying the privilege always has a lot of reasons not to give them up."

Not even WGA members are united on the importance of these issues, however. Says Gross, who comes across as something of a Hollywood gadfly, "I believe that the WGA's position about respect is ludicrous. My quarrel is that the union is on solid ground when it negotiates about money, but when we negotiate for respect we're engaging in a delusion -- we want to be Jews running the concentration camp."

VI. DECISIONS:
"STRIKING FOR FUTURE
GENERATIONS."

"So I've had to take an attitude in this Guild matter. It looks to me like a try for power, and all I am going to give the writers is money."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon

Should the WGA go on strike, as Robert Eisele will tell you, it won't be only for money and tickets to a premiere.

"Guild members would be striking for future generations," he says. "I have pension, health and welfare because of people who struck back in the '50s. I have residuals because of strikes in the '50s and '60s. And I have a guild because people had the balls to put one together to control credits back in the '30s."

No one you talk to in the WGA wants a strike. "You never make back the money you lose" is a frequently heard refrain, and everyone knows that the three television networks that were the object of the WGA's 1988 strike never recovered all of the audience share they lost to cable and local TV. Beside such practical concerns stands the indisputable fact that the nation's unions have entered a period made uncertain by a new Republican president who seems to have sworn a blood oath against organized labor.

There are now more members of the WGA who have never experienced a strike than those who have, which, in some metaphorical rite of passage, puts many young writers in the landing crafts of an economic war. "Emotionally it's a huge issue for me," says Joshua Stern, who may be facing his first strike vote next week. "Since I'm a working writer, I'm in a position to put other people out of work by voting to strike. I'm very concerned about the Teamsters, the makeup people and the P.A.s. But I'm definitely willing to strike -- we've taken it on the butt for so long now, we get kicked to our cars in the parking lot!"

Stern's resolve seems almost universal among the WGA's leaders and rank and file. "Even someone like me," says Larry Gross, "who has contempt for much of what the guild does, knows that the other side is so much more horrendous that you have to go after them. I would like to believe we could get what we could get without a strike, but a strike may end up forcing the guild to get some spine."

If May 1 passes without an agreement, the two sides can still extend the current contract past its expiration date and avoid a strike (and at the same time bring the talks closer to SAG and AFTRA's own July 1 deadline). If the WGA's negotiators aren't happy with the progress of the talks, they can submit what the studios are offering at that point to the membership for acceptance, or authorization of a strike vote. If the strike vote is overwhelmingly in favor of walking out, this will be an incentive for the studios to make concessions; if the union appears torn, then management will infer that the membership will not be able to sustain a long strike. In the event of a pro-strike decision, the union will ask all of its members to turn in a copy of all scripts in progress, which will be sealed in envelopes as proof against possible later charges of scabbing.

 

At this moment, everything is literally on the table. But as Hollywood's day of wrath approaches, Robert Eisele is certain of one thing: "Nobody is going to be happy when this thing is over."


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