Before the writers and producers get back to the bargaining table Monday, I’d like to share with you my reporting about what the Hollywood moguls are thinking now that the Writers Guild Of America members have overwhelmingly (by 90.3%) authorized a strike to start anytime November 1st or later against the Alliance Of Motion Picture & Television Producers. I must say, what I learned truly shocked me. Just as I reported the writers’ POV Friday night, I’m now doing the moguls’. Don’t assume either is my own view: that if any of this thinking were rational, a labor walkout wouldn’t cripple Hollywood in the first place.
First, this is where the individual moguls stand vis a vis a WGA strike. I’m told they break down into only two groups, not the three groups from last time around. So instead of hawks, moderates and conservatives, there’s now only hawks and conservatives:
Hawks: Peter Chernin (News Corp/Fox), Bob Iger (Walt Disney/ABC), Barry Meyer (Warner Bros), Jeff Zucker (NBC Universal), Michael Lynton (Sony Pictures Entertainment).
Conservatives: Les Moonves (CBS), Ron Meyer (Universal), Brad Grey (Paramount), Amy Pascal (Sony Pictures Entertainment), Harry Sloan (MGM, which also reps United Artists in this), Jeffrey Katzenberg (DreamWorks Animation, and the most moderate of the bunch).
Nothing about this list should be terribly surprising. Sloan’s struggling studio with all its financing and box office problems needs a strike like a hole in the head right now. Katzenberg wants to be the mogul who brokers a compromise, but his bigwig brethrens don’t care to let him play the hero role. (More about Katzenberg below…) Zucker, with GE threatening to sell the entertainment unit, doesn’t want to get mired into more onerous financial formulas that are going to make his business even worse. Lynton wants to be a moderate but, like Zucker, needs to lower his upfront costs and, like Zucker, answers to a very strong-willed parent company whose businesses are diversified and who demands the entertainment unit now posting a return on investment in the low single-digits to at least get back to high single-digits (since no one expects the old double-digits anymore).
As for Chernin, Iger, Barry Meyer, Moonves, and also Zucker, they actually welcome a strike because they believe the 2007/2008 TV season is dead on arrival anyway. So many new shows are tanking in the ratings and/or going over budget and/or having production problems (Fox’s Back To You, Nashville, K-VILLE; CBS’ Kid Nation, Cane and Viva Laughlin (UPDATE: the first scripted new show of the season to be killed); NBC’s Journeyman, Life and Bionic Woman; ABC’s Cavemen, Big Shots, Dirty Sexy Money, and Pushing Daisies.) Even returning hit shows are losing their Nielsen luster (NBC’s Heroes, ABC’s Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, CBS‘ CSI:Miami and Cold Case) that they feel this is as as good a time for a strike as any. As one mogul told me, “We can get rid of the overhead and regroup and rethink everything. If we were having a great year, it might be different. But we’re not, and this is like an automatic do-over.” As Les Moonves last week told his personal publicist (or is it apologist?), Bill Carter of The New York Times, “I’m not concerned about the state of CBS. I’m a bit concerned about the state of network television generally.”
I found this news really surprising because of the willingness of the network moguls to so readily give up eyeballs that may never return to broadcast television. Didn’t any of them notice the Halo 3 phenomenon? But even more shocking because the WGA’s TV writers who make up the vast majority of the guild membership have been clearly operating under an illusion. (This won’t be the first time for that by either side…) As I wrote Friday night, intense pressure is coming from the TV writers to strike sooner rather than later in order to hurt the primetime business to the greatest extent possible. They argue that waiting until January 1st would allow most shows to bank 6 to 8 more episode scripts, and the only real way for the WGA to wield palpable power is to shut down the TV season as soon as possible, even by November 1st. Now I find out that this will play into the hands of the TV moguls who certainly sound ready to give up the season entirely. It’s useless to point out that the last strike was in March 1988, lasted 22 weeks, and cost the industry a half-billion bucks. Because the answer I get back from the moguls is that they’ve now mastered the programming “art” of cheap reality TV and game shows. (See my previous, Strike Vote In For WGA: 90.3% Say “Yes”)
Here’s another shocker: there are no meetings planned by the moguls for the moguls. And none have been held to date. Lots of communications by telephone. But no brainstorming sessions like the ones held at Katzenberg’s house when he headed Walt Disney Studios. The moguls were supposed to “stand by” for a meeting sometime in the next few days. But now that looks unlikely, I’m told.
At the same time, the moguls are convinced they’re losing the PR war in the pre-strike period. Because I understand the studio and network bigwigs thought their renouncement of residual rollbacks was a “really big deal” concession that would get the writers in a positive frame of mind. I’m told the moguls were genuinely shocked at the WGA spin to members that it wasn’t much of a concession since it never should have been on the table in the first place — and there are dozens and dozens of other AMPTP-proposed rollbacks for the guild to still worry about. “Right now, the attitude is that we made a major move, and they’re kicking sand in our face,” a mogul told me.
So some of the moguls want to come up with a way to get their unfiltered viewpoint across to the WGA. Katzenberg is the most vocal about this, floating the idea of “putting a face out there to show we’re human”. Suggestions include holding a press conference, sending one or several studio and/or network bigwigs to the negotiating sessions, or starting a so-called “mogul blog” to focus on the strike. Or maybe creating a Q-&-A session with those moguls who feign sincerity better than others and posting video of their conversations on an AMPTP web page.
The moguls also have spent the past five days “devising our own alternatives” to present to the WGA. The problem, say the bigwigs, is that “no one at the WGA has come to us with a formula” and “without residuals, the WGA is having a hard time articulating what they really want.” In other words, the bigwigs are looking for all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed specifics of, say, a New Media plan that would give writers a share of digital revenue before they can even consider it. So the moguls and their business side people and their negotiating committee are “looking at different packages, putting alternatives and options and combinations together” so something new is on the table for Monday’s session or soon after. “We’re trying to narrow the issues to those issues that really matter,” a source told me. “As cavalier as some of the hawks and conservatives are, the goal is really to avoid a strike.”
But the moguls think what else is missing is a Big Name to help solve this mess. The legendary Lew Wasserman is long gone. And uberlawyer Ken Ziffren saved the moguls’ and writers’ asses by ending the last WGA strike. And Bob Daly, ex-Warner Bros chairman, stepped in and stopped a WGA walkout from even starting in 2001. Who’s it going to be this time around? The names I’m hearing include Daly, Ziffren or his law partner Skip Brittenham, even The Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ex-Sony and ex-Paramount bigwig Jonathan Dolgen’s name has also surfaced (as one source told me, “Because in my experience he’s one of the smartest guys ever with numbers. And he doesn’t need charts and graphs. He’s just brilliant at explaining it to people.”) There’s also ex-Viacom and ex-Universal mogul Frank Biondi, who knows the business inside and out and can be a calming influence. You know, and I know, the decision will be made (if at all) on the basis of who will offend the least amount of people involved.
Tomorrow, I’ll file on what compromises might be in store…