Q. What’s the timetable if the Writers Guild of America calls a strike?
As of press time, the writers’ walkout may not begin when their contract expires at midnight on Halloween. “Because the WGA wants to give the studios every opportunity to present a reasonable offer before instituting a devastating work stoppage. As if the studios haven't had that chance since July,” a top WGA source told me Tuesday night. That morning, the WGA turnout was strong as members handed out informational fliers and newsletters to union and other drivers entering five of the major studio lots. This follows anecdotal reports I’ve received from various network shows that crews are expressing their anger and frustration about a walkout. Studio execs were confused by the sight of writers out in force, thinking that WGA picketing had already begun. Nope.
The WGA was about to deliver a “comprehensive package proposal” to the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers at the bargaining table Wednesday. But the guild is still holding a large general-membership meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Thursday. But picketing might not begin on Friday as had been planned.
Meanwhile, AMPTP prez Nick Counter says his side will continue to negotiate, poststrike. “They can strike for six months or 12 months or 24 months; at some point we have to reach an agreement. There are no divorces in our industry. It’s just a question of when and how much damage is caused.”
Q. Why would either side listen to a federal mediator anyway?
A. Both sides believe there’s too much acrimony right now between them for a federal mediator to avert a strike. He came to the contract negotiations starting Tuesday. The hope is that the mediator “can at least help clear the brush so we can get to the vital issues,” an insider said.
Q. What’s this “script-validation program” everyone’s talking about? Is the WGA offering valet parking on the picket lines?
A. Rename it the “fear-validation program.” Individual writers this week have received scary, threatening letters from the studios and networks warning about the WGA’s “script-validation program.” The controversy boils down to this: The guild wants members to submit copies of any half-finished scripts to headquarters in order to uncover strikebreakers and scabs. The producers don’t want them to. The writers say this program is “a lawful internal union rule.” The producers say these scripts are the exclusive property of the studios and networks: “As such, writers are prohibited from giving, sharing or otherwise depositing such material with the WGA.” Now two opposing outside counsels, repping the WGA and the AMPTP, are racking up billable hours to fight it out.
Q: What’s been the low point of the pre-strike negotiations?
A. The chairs. Yes, the chairs. Talk about childishness: One recent bargaining session started off stupidly with a heated argument over where everyone would sit. When AMPTP’s Nick Counter showed up at the WGA’s bargaining venue trailing twice as many people as writers’ negotiator David Young had planned for, the guild didn’t have enough seating. Young complained that Counter had given him a specific head count, and Counter shot back that he’d warned well in advance that he was going to bring his whole committee with him and called Young a liar (even though another witness vouched for Young’s recounting of events).
But Young wouldn’t let the producers’ side sit down, or bring chairs in from other rooms, or even go downstairs to a bigger conference room that had seating for everyone. For a while there was an impasse, and then a Paramount labor exec stepped into the fray and started yelling at guild members, “What are you trying to prove here?” Finally, several negotiating committee members, the best known of whom was Desperate Housewives hyphenate Marc Cherry, fetched chairs for the extra AMPTP’ers.
As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, for days and days after, the two sides argued over where they would meet, the WGA headquarters or AMPTP’s venue. Insanity.
Q. What’s been the high point of the talks?
A. Nothing. But the entrance into the fray by the “Hollywood Teamsters” — a.k.a. the Motion Picture and Theatrical Trade Teamsters, which reps more than 4,800 studio drivers, casting directors and location managers — changes everything. This week, Teamsters Local 399 leader Leo Reed urged members to honor the WGA’s picket lines. A source told me, “This is going to be a difficult decision for individual Teamsters to make. But, even though it puts them in peril, I think most Teamsters strongly believe they don’t cross picket lines.”
Immediately, AMPTP felt the heat. Counter fired off a toothless letter of protest, but even a producers’ source admitted to me there’s “nothing illegal about Leo Reed invoking the ‘conscience clause.’ But the problem is he hates this industry.” How much this could disrupt Hollywood production will depend on how many picket lines the WGA can set up and for how long. But the Teamsters could be a turning point in these talks.
Q. Are the two guys leading the negotiations pricks or poseurs or what?
A. AMPTP’s Nick Counter keeps ranting about the WGA’s conduct during the process. “He seems frustrated by this guild leadership that’s not caving at the sight of him,” a WGA insider told me. “Counter is being a little bitch.” Funny enough, when I ran this remark by the producers’ side, an insider agreed. “He is a bitch.”
The producers want to vilify WGA negotiating committee topper Dave Young because he doesn’t have an entertainment background and prior to joining the WGA in 2004 was in the garment and construction industries. “He’s never negotiated a big contract like this,” an AMPTP source claims. I also keep hearing over and over from the producers how Young is responsible for the current hard-line position taken by the writers. Certainly, he has helped focus the WGA’s anger and resentment with tactics that have alarmed the studios and networks. On the other hand, Young has been the point person on ridiculous issues, like the chairs, so as to give the writers pause.
At the same time, the WGA loves to vilify Counter since he has been the beet-red face of the producers for the past 25 years, overseeing some 400 labor contracts with writers, actors, film crews, musicians and scores of other professionals. But this time around, suddenly Counter is being second-guessed. I’m hearing there’s divisiveness inside the AMPTP camp because of “a blame game” focused on how the hell these negotiations went so wrong — first, with the “big concession” of the residuals rollback not impressing the writers, then with the WGA’s onerous “script-validation program,” and now with the Teamsters’ support of WGA picket lines. In recent days, the AMPTP has stepped up its PR campaign and made Counter available to every media outlet, and certainly the trades and Los Angeles Times have shown themselves happy to be spoon-fed by the producers’ camp.
Q. Forget everything else: What’s the one issue everyone needs to resolve here?
A. New media and the Internet. At the start of last Friday’s negotiations, WGA lead negotiator David Young boiled it down to this: “For a few decades now, there has been a growing feeling among writers that they are slowly being left behind. Every new technology or genre, instead of being treated as a new opportunity for mutual growth and benefit, is presented to us as some unfathomable obstacle that requires flexibility from writers — meaning a cheap deal that remains in place. This happened with home video. It happened with basic cable. It has happened with reality TV. Now you want it to happen with new media and the Internet.”
The producers want a coupla years to determine what new media’s big revenues might be, but offer to make any deal retroactive. AMPTP’s newest solution is to base new-media payments on what individual writers can negotiate with the studios and networks — presumably through their agents — all without any interference from the WGA.
Q. How will the strike affect TV viewers and moviegoers?
A. There’ll be a steady supply of films, because the Hollywood studios began preparing for this strike two years ago. As for TV, late-night talk shows will seem lamer than usual. Most scripted primetime series have at least eight to 12 completed episodes in the can. Some of the networks early on went into production on strike programming masquerading as midseason replacements (like ABC’s Cashmere Mafia). NBC’s strike strategy was to stockpile episodes of familiar shows like The Office, My Name Is Earl, and Heroes. No wonder Fox is a strike hawk: It can’t wait for its walkout-unaffected blockbuster American Idol to return in January. Expect the other nets to put up crappy reality and game shows, news specials, old inventory and European programs.