Waiting for Texty

On Thursday, Oct. 18, some 200 members of the Writers Guild of America West crammed into a banquet hall at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. "It reminded me of being at a farm workers’ union rally back in the 1970’s," said the writer and director George Hickenlooper.

"The mood was angry," recalled another attendee.

That same night, about 50 members of the somewhat limper WGA East made a show of solidarity at the Marriott Marquis on Broadway. "Most of our members mailed in their votes," said Sherry Goldman, the faction’s spokesperson.

Still, that night the two coasts spoke as one, in historic numbers: roughly 5,500 of an estimated total 12,000 WGA members voted, and 90.3 percent of those were in favor of authorizing a strike (the previous guild record was 4,128 votes cast in the 2001 "minimum basic agreement" contract ratification).

"It is now up to the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] companies to begin to bargain seriously," said Patric M. Verrone, president of WGAW, in a statement issued Oct. 22.

"This historic vote sends an unequivocal message to the AMPTP, loud and clear," echoed Michael Winship, president of WGAE. "We will not be taken advantage of and will not be fooled with."

Longtime alliance president Nick Counter maintained a stiff upper lip, dismissing the authorization vote as a "pro forma tactic."

For those fortunate enough to have steady jobs, the prospect of willful, principled unemployment feels, at least at first flush, as giddy as a snow day.

"I’d just like to chill the fuck out for a bit," said Dave Kalstein, 30, a writer on NBC’s Bionic Woman. "Two weeks, I think, would make everyone happy. We’re already talking about taking a trip to Hawaii. But that’s sort of the make-lemonade-of-lemons attitude."

A lot of his cohorts, he said, are talking about finally getting the chance to, you know, make high art. "I’m a big theater fan, maybe I’ll finally write that play I always planned to write," said Oscar-nominated writer-director Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers; P.S., I Love You).

"But I’ve written a novel," Mr. Kalstein said. "And you don’t make any money."

Money, of course, is exactly what’s at stake here. The current MBA contract, which includes a pension plan, health insurance and cushy perks such as first-class airplane tickets for traveling scribes, expires on Oct. 31. Film and television writers are seeking compensation for content reused in new media<a territory just beginning to be colonized, and one from which the writers are determined not to be excluded. As a prime-time writer-producer of one of the hottest shows on the air put it, "The idea where a show is on at 9 p.m. on one night will not exist. It will only be NBC.com or ABC.com, just like there is a YouTube. You’ll come home from work and you’ll turn on your television set, and instead of a remote, there’ll be a keyboard sitting on your coffee table, and you can check your e-mail or Web-browse, but you can also check your television. We’re all going to watch higher-quality versions of these little YouTube windows. I don’t think there’s anybody with half a brain that thinks it could be any different. How could it be?"

The writers are also demanding increased residuals from DVD sales.

Since negotiations began July 16, studios have offered little in the way of flexibility on these points. Indeed, the AMPTP came to the table proposing no new media revenue and offering to restructure residual compensation to only apply after companies had recouped the cost of the film or showrollbacks, essentially.

"It’s a shoot-the-dog proposal," writer-director and WGA East member Andrew Bergman (Blazing Saddles, Fletch, The Freshman) indignantly told The Observer.

"We are the people who create the product, and we feel really exploited in the deal," said a writer-director who attended a negotiation session on Oct. 25. "The belligerent attitude of the producers and their refusal to talk about the future and new media is just basically a red flag to us all."

At presstime, representatives of the WGA East and West, the AMPTP and reps for the individual studios, were still negotiating in a boardroom at the AMPTP headquarters in Encino. Ms. Goldman estimates this was about the 15th meeting since July. "They’re still saying they don’t make any money off the new media," she said of the studios. "If they don’t make any money why won’t they give us a percentage?"

"I think in general no one wants to strike," said Carter Harris, a writer-producer of Friday Night Lights, "but I think what’s changed in the last couple of months, and especially the last week, is that all of the writers I’ve talked to, including the ones who originally had misgivings because they weren’t sure why we were doing it, are now much clearer about why we’re doing it and much more unified. Much more committed to doing what’s necessary to get what we think we deserve. I think there’s a much more universal willingness to strike among the writers that I know, including myself."

Waiting for Texty