“It’s not going to be as much fun in two months, I’ll tell you that,” says John Carlen, a veteran Writers Guild member carrying a union placard. The Big Strike of 2007 is barely 3 hours old and two dozen picketers have turned up in front of Warner Bros. Studio’s Gate 2, chatting with motorcycle cops and chanting union songs. (“We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!”) They mostly wear red guild T-shirts — though a few crimson-colored shirts advertise the Boston Red Sox or Target stores. Some of the picketers work on the sprawling Warner’s Burbank lot, others have been sent here by WGA strike strategists.
Carlen, who recently finished writing a Civil War screenplay with Fred Schepisi attached as director, good-naturedly laments the trashing the L.A. Weekly gave his most recent picture (the Nicolas Cage–directed Sonny), and shows a remarkable memory when quoting the negative review. He is also able to recall the “mess” of the 1988 writers’ strike, which lasted more than five months and ended without the union making much headway in increasing videocassette residuals for its members. Today, passing drivers honk in solidarity, while a giant Vince Vaughn seems to keep an eye on the protesters from a two-story Fred Claus billboard.
Farther down the street, at the studio’s Gate 4 off Hollywood Way, a strike captain named Susan also recalls the long and difficult ’88 walkout and how it caused a rift in membership and temporarily spawned a breakaway movement.
“The membership is a lot more united and better organized today,” Susan says. “We’re angrier now about DVD payments and are not going to let them get away without paying [Internet] royalties.”
“They” are the producers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), who are resisting union demands to share profits from such “new media” sources as podcasts and other downloadable platforms. It’s no secret that the WGA has been playing catch-up with technology since the early 1980s, when its leadership failed to appreciate the potential revenue windfalls to be reaped from video sales and rentals. The studios back then were very appreciative, however, and today feel no need to let writers have more of their profits from subsequent technologies. There had been a flurry of last-minute negotiations late Sunday night, but the producers wouldn’t budge.
“I had faith in the talks,” Susan says, “but not hope.”
John Enbom (Veronica Mars, The Sarah Connor Chronicles) had never been on strike in the eight years he’d been a guild member — or anywhere else in his life — before he was pressed into action as picket captain at Gate 3 when the original captain came down sick last night. A self-described industry “middle guy,” he bought his first house last year in Eagle Rock and is one of the picketers with a desk on the other side of the Warner’s gate. He points out that Gate 3 is an executive’s entry, and doesn’t think his strike crew will have much of an effect on the suits making their way onto the lot.
“My curiosity lasted five minutes,” he laughs, when asked about the novelty of being on strike. “We want this strike to be short and to go back to work. But new media, streaming content — those are big issues for us because residuals are what pays the rent when you’re not working.”
Around lunchtime, the traffic thickens on the streets outside the studio and the horn honking increases, much to the delight of the picketers. Most members seem too young to have voted for president in 1988, let alone to have belonged to the guild then.
Jeff Schimmel (Mind of Mencia) became a member in 1991, after the last strike, but is well aware of how important it is for the WGA to increase residual revenue from streaming content and other new media — some of which may only now be on the drawing board.
“The Internet, blogisodes, webisodes, anything like that — I would say any place that may use the work that we produce should compensate us for it,” Schimmel says. “We all know that a few years from now there won’t even be DVDs, the way tapes became passé, so we’re trying to stay ahead of the curve and need something in our contract now that will cover that.”
Across from Warner’s, more strikers picket in front of Universal Studios at the end of Forest Lawn Drive, including the entire writing staff of Law & Order: SVU.
“Okay, guys,” one picket leader calls out. “On the way back, we’re gonna do, ‘On strike, shut it down! Hollywood’s a union town!’ It’s a remix — a reprise.”
Mick Betancourt, a 33-year-old SVU writer, has been in the guild only three years. Before that, he was a Teamster in Chicago. As the sun finally emerges from the morning fog, he is stoked.
“We’ve got pickets on every gate,” Betancourt says. “If we don’t get a fair contract, then we’re going to start hitting locations and start doing things there. There’s this myth that it’s millionaires versus billionaires. But the median income of a WGA member is $5,000. I rent an apartment in Sherman Oaks. I have a 4½-year-old son and a baby due in December. The only reason my wife and I can live in a nice part of town is because of the union contract.”
A block away, the chants of Betancourt and other Law & Order writers couldn’t penetrate the gloom of the Smoke House restaurant, whose lone bartender acknowledges that already business is noticeably down.
At the bar, two men in their 30s talk about crossing the picket lines to talk to producers about their projects.
“He told me to come in at 8 in the morning,” says one man.
“But there’s picket lines in front,” the man’s friend says.
“That’s why he told me 8 o’clock — he said the strikers won’t show up until 9.”
With that, the two men look at a TV screen that will soon be full of football games, reality shows and reruns.