Taking a Contract Out on the Writers

And so, just before 4 p.m. on Friday, May 4, the

long-threatened and much-dreaded writers’ strike was finally averted.

Representatives of the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion

Picture and Television Producers stepped in front of the TV cameras, smiled,

shook hands and announced that, after a week of marathon negotiations, a

three-year deal had been reached.   

There was joy in the land. Real-estate agents, photocopy-shop operators,

car valets and maître d’s rejoiced. And for at least 24 hours you couldn’t turn

on the local news without hearing a caterer, set designer or stunt man holding

forth about how wonderful it was that there would be no strike.

But among a certain group of writers-on phone lines and in

e-mails-there was an entirely different set of responses to the proposed

agreement.

“We got screwed,” complained more than one screenwriter,

pointing out that there was no increase in video residuals, no real

breakthroughs on DVD’s and nothing concrete-”bubkis, zip,” no binding work

rules-about any of the creative issues that had been touted as the main thrust

of these negotiations. The “film by” director’s possessory credit remained

intact; there were still no contractual obligations to invite writers to cast

readings, dailies, premieres, press junkets. But in a concession of supreme

munificence, the studios agreed to acknowledge that the writer is a part of the

production by listing his or her name on the “call sheet,” the daily

information sheet listing all key participants that’s published when a film is

in production.

“We were told this negotiation was about changing our

position in the industry,” groused one screenwriter. “It was supposed to be

about respect. And on that count, we got nowhere.”

Television writers, on the other hand, seemed to have a

different point of view. “It was a victory for us,” said one, who preferred

that her name not be used for fear of social reprisals. “The Fox network is now

going to pay the same rates as NBC, ABC and CBS; foreign residuals and

made-for-cable-TV rates for shows like The

Sopranos were increased. So far as I’m concerned, all the creative stuff

was a waste of time. There’s no way I would have ever supported a strike for

those things.”

Part of what you’re hearing here is a long-term split inside

the Guild: TV writers versus the film writers. They have different agendas and

different needs. In television, the writer is king. As writer-producers, they

bring shows in on time and on budget. Yet in the film business, that very same

writer is thought of as a whiny impediment to the director’s vision, who gets

paid too much, is always late and will definitely need to be rewritten, at even

greater expense.

The problem is that the Guild negotiates for both camps, at

the same time, as one unit. And once you get beyond the most basic employment

issues-health coverage and pensions-these two groups have almost nothing in

common. It’s something the Guild has struggled with for years, as the

leadership is forced to trade off the needs of one constituency for another in

order to negotiate a contract that supposedly serves the common good.

Over the weekend, the hard feelings on the part of

screenwriters I spoke to solidified into a fatalistic “we got screwed, life

goes on, it’s the movie business.”

Then, on Monday, May 7,

a front-page article in The Los Angeles

Times by James Bates and Claudia Eller about what went on behind the scenes

of these contract negotiations set off a whole new controversy.

On one hand, the article pointed out that the changing

economic outlook and the success of non-scripted shows like CBS’s Survivor had weakened the Guild’s

hard-line position. With the downturn in California’s economy, many of the rank

and file had lost their taste for picket lines. And network executives-most

notably CBS’s Les Moonves-were promoting the idea that the networks would be “just

fine, thank you,” filling their schedules with cheaper, reality-based

programming.

But what members of the Guild found so incendiary-and

infuriating-in Mr. Bates and Ms. Eller’s article was their discovery that two

other unions had joined forces to undermine the writers’ demands: the Directors

Guild of America and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees,

which represents electricians, carpenters, painters, costume designers and lots

of the other blue-collar craftspeople you see listed during the end credits of

a film.

The article said that Jay Roth, the executive director of

the D.G.A., and Thomas Short, president of IATSE, had “formed an unlikely

alliance to make sure the writers would not strike or rewrite the rules of

filmmaking.” The D.G.A.’s Roth was “miffed that the Writers Guild was using the

contract negotiations to launch an unwanted invasion on his members’ creative

turf.” And, according to one unnamed union official, the Writers Guild had to

be reined in because it had become “a satellite spinning out of control.”

Ah, yes. You’d always heard that film is a collaborative

medium, hadn’t you?

The L.A. Times

piece also pointed out one small but critical problem that should have been

obvious, but was overlooked by most members of the Guild: To make the threat of

a strike seem viable, the writers had hoped to align with the Screen Actors

Guild, whose contract runs out June 30. The idea was that the two unions would

wield more power than one. But on the recommendation of Mike Ovitz and Jeff

Katzenberg, S.A.G. had appointed someone named Brian Walton to be their head

negotiator, a man who has no particular love for the Writers Guild. He was

fired as the W.G.A.’s executive director two years ago, having been accused of

becoming too enamored of the studios and the lifestyle led by their executives.

Needless to say, there was no S.A.G.-W.G.A. alliance.

So where does this leave us?

At press time, no one outside the negotiating committee has

actually seen the fine points of what was agreed to in the proposed contract.

At present, we’re all operating from an executive summary released by the Guild

and posted on their Web site (www.wga.org). On the face of it, there appear to

be more victories than defeats. It seems to be a respectable deal-but nowhere

near the groundbreaking contract that union leaders had promised.

In the next week or two, members of the Writers Guild will

meet in an auditorium somewhere in Los Angeles and vote on the proposed

contract. There’ll probably be lots of histrionics in the room, but in the end,

it will almost certainly be ratified.

During the weeks leading up to the May 1 contract expiration

date, Los Angeles was gripped by a pre-strike frenzy-sort of like the insane,

over-hyped build-up to our own “Blizzard of the Century” that didn’t

materialize over New York this past March.

Local TV stations provided live updates around the clock

from the Writers Guild headquarters on Fairfax Avenue. (“Coming up at 11:

Strike Watch 2001.”) By my count, there were 16 satellite trucks encircling the

building.

The mayor issued dire

warnings about the economic consequences that would befall Southern California

if we struck. He seemed more visible, engaged, concerned and willing to get

involved in this “crisis” than in either the ongoing police corruption scandals

or the looming power shortages.

The studios were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of screenplays

being turned in before midnight on April 30, by screenwriters wanting to get

paid before what was promised to be a six-month work stoppage.

I turned mine in to Sony six days early, on April 24.

Several months ago, I

used this space to ask whether it was possible-or feasible-to negotiate

something as ephemeral as respect.

We now have the answer: No.

On Tuesday, May 7, exactly two weeks after I turned in my

screenplay to Sony, I received my first studio notes for the rewrite. Some are

smart. Some are dumb. Nothing has changed.

It is, as they say, business as usual.