AT NOON LAST MONDAY, striking writers picketing at CBS's Genesee Gate saw a truck from Yellow Transportation Inc. stop short of the entrance. The Teamster driver then approached the WGA strikers.
Driver: “I thought you guys had an agreement.”
Picketers: “Not yet.”
Driver: “Well, then, they're not getting their delivery today.”
That driver was not alone in thinking the writers' strike was all but over. After all, even Peter Chernin, News Corp.'s number two and the point man for the moguls in the negotiations, was telling Hollywood pals at Super Bowl XLII that “The strike is over.”
Leading up to this week, I'd been reporting exclusively on DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com that day after day of back-channel discussions had resulted in progress. Then came Friday, February 1, which proved a “very productive day,” I was told — so good that one of my sources dared to say he was now “very optimistic” about a settlement. Because of the media blackout, no one was giving details, but I've managed to ferret out some of what went right that Friday, after so much between the WGA and the Hollywood CEOs had gone wrong.
In recent weeks, a ridiculously large number of Hollywood power players — from major feature-film writers and TV show runners, to agents and managers and lawyers, to executives and moguls — had been on the phone urging media such as I to pressure the Writers Guild to take the same deal that the Directors Guild accepted last month as is and call off the strike before the Oscars. I heard smart arguments, and I heard nonsensical arguments (like that of the bigtime agent who described the TV show runners as “the plantation owners” and the TV writers who worked for them as “the cotton pickers, who should just damn well be grateful they have health and pension and get back to work already”).
But who was putting equal pressure on the moguls? Certainly not Variety, or the Los Angeles Times, or The New York Times. I found it outrageous that every mainstream media outlet influential in show biz from the outset took the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers' shill position that the DGA deal was a “great” deal because it had been negotiated by “grown-ups” and the WGA “brats” better take it or else. Truth is, it's been the moguls who have acted childish and churlish the whole time. Worse, the CEOs had disengaged from the process, with occasional exceptions, and hadn't met together even once. (Unlike in the 1988 writers strike, when there was truly a sense of urgency and the moguls regularly huddled in Bel Air living rooms.) The way I saw it, a better use of what little time remained before the Academy Awards on February 24 would be to pressure the moguls to use the DGA deal as a good start.
Judging from the thousands of e-mails I received, opinions within the WGA were running 3-to-1 that the DGA deal, after its sketchy details were announced, looked both promisingly incremental and fundamentally excremental. Incremental because it did address issues that the Hollywood CEOs long withheld from their faux negotiations with the WGA, like an electronic sell-through formula. And shitty because the deal's ad-supported streaming payout was still insulting.
Worse, the moguls seemed to fashion the DGA deal in such a way as to undermine and eventually eradicate the old residual system from the new streaming formulas. The majority of the DGA members get no direct residual payments, but the big guns of the DGA all get profit participation on their projects. That leaves only 20 percent of that guild's membership for whom residual payments are a lifeline. So the DGA deal could play well for the CEOs in the press and put pressure on the WGA leadership to take it or look unreasonable by comparison. But it's a false argument — when it comes to Hollywood deals, one size does not fit all.
So chief negotiator John Bowman and entertainment lawyer Alan Wertheimer led the WGA's effort to adapt the DGA deal to writers' needs. First, Bowman met with Peter Chernin, Warner Bros. chief Barry Meyer and CBS boss Les Moonves to break the ice back on January 7 at a meeting where, supposedly, the CEOs said they were sorry for acting like assholes during phases 1 and 2 of the negotiations. From that confab, the WGA-mogul talks were reborn. Then Wertheimer, who has long repped some of the major motion-picture and TV scribes, broke down what was being offered and presented the ramifications the way any lawyer does in a negotiation. “He was kind of a hero,” an insider told me.
AS THE INFORMAL TALKS STARTED, I kept worrying that the moguls would make good on their threats to not reward the WGA for striking (giving them better terms than the directors and thereby making the helmers look weak). Strangely, the Hollywood CEOs were startled by the distrust they found among the WGA leadership. Not only had weeks and months of dealing with Nick Counter, and believing AMPTP promises to put New Media terms on the table, poisoned the overall atmosphere; in addition, the moguls had promised but then refused to revisit the weak formulas for home video or DVD negotiated years ago. So why should the WGA believe their pledge to revisit those for New Media in three years?
First, it took a lot of lobbying to convince the WGA leaders there would be no “significant” money in streaming for the next several years. (One source claimed that the WGA's numbers were “quadruple” more-realistic assessments.) Meanwhile, Chernin and Disney CEO Bob Iger focused on addressing the WGA's New Media needs without confusing them with the DGA's. A source close to the negotiations told me, “To their credit, Bob and Peter said to the WGA, 'Tell us what really concerns you.' And that's when things really started moving on questions about jurisdiction on the Internet and the third-year formula for streaming.”
At the same time, leaders of several dissident factions within the WGA (some made up of very powerful TV show runners and feature-film writers) approached the guild toppers with an ultimatum: They would no longer promise to keep silent if a deal wasn't done right away. An insider told me, “The guys on the WGA side knew if they didn't come out with a deal [that] weekend, Monday was going to be a bad day. They'd been personally told by these different pockets of writers that they would no longer be supportive and measured. They planned on going public. They planned to blow the guild up.”
Meanwhile, 75 militant show runners sent a letter to Patric Verrone, Dave Young and Bowman — the WGA leadership involved in the breakthrough session with Chernin and Iger — that Friday demanding that they obtain better terms than the DGA deal. “Our guys had plenty of ammo going in there to tell the other side that a bum deal would never get ratified by the majority of show runners or their staffs,” an insider told me.
So this is where things stand right now: Verrone, Young and Bowman will be explaining and recommending the deal to the membership at a general meeting Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium. The guild's negotiating committee and board have already been briefed. Then those two panels will vote. That can't happen until the deal is drafted. But if someone gets tricky with the language or terms, “There's still a possibility that this thing could get fucked,” a source explains.
Once both the WGA negotiating committee and the WGA board approve the deal, then the guild leaders will call off the strike immediately. I'm told that was an integral part of the agreement because the moguls didn't want to wait for the membership at large to weigh in on the deal. Among those pressing for this was Bob Iger, who for obvious reasons wants the picket lines to come down so Hollywood can feel free to attend ABC's Academy Awards. (Many still fear this year's Oscars will wind up bitch-slapped like NBC's Golden Globes. So Vanity Fair magazine, Hollywood hostess Dani Janssen and superagent Ed Limato have all canceled their private Oscar parties.) Right now, if the WGA board accepts the deal, I'm told that the Back 9 of most scripted TV series could be saved, along with a no-frills pilot season with fewer scripted series ordered than ever before. Some of the force-majeured deals could be reinstated. (I've learned that three times as many pacts would have been canceled if the agents and lawyers hadn't lobbied the networks and studios.) Feature films that were halted or thought lost could get going immediately.
But what happens to all this back-to-work progress if the WGA membership votes down the deal? A bigger mess than even now, like what happened during the 1960 strike when the membership voted not once but twice to reject deals negotiated by guild leaders. The right thing to do is to let the membership vote before the strike is called off. That gives the WGA leadership time to lower members' expectations about what could and couldn't be accomplished. Only the WGA members can decide how much more pain they are willing to endure with no guarantee that whatever is negotiated months from now (alongside SAG) is going to be any better than what has been negotiated now. The one thing this strike has done is to give writers a powerful voice that Hollywood has heard loud and clear. Don't silence the scribes at this crucial juncture.