Not just at the Writers Guild of America but all over Hollywood today a deep sigh of relief resounded when the news broke that the movie studios and TV networks withdrew the proposal to let them recoup certain costs before making residual payments. This huge concession occurred one day after the trades were filled with pessimism because the WGA’s new hardline strike rules had resulted in a declaration of war from the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers president Nick Counter.
This is exactly why I have been delaying any posting of strike news until today. Because there’s been so much huffing, and puffing, and most of all bluffing going on that it’s been near impossible to get a real sense of where things stood. You can’t believe the posturing from the WGA side, just as you can’t believe anything said by Counter. The truth lies in the executive suites and palatial homes of the top Hollywood moguls, who have been letting their labor lackeys keep track of the negotiations to date and don’t even have a meeting planned amongst themselves for another week. Let’s not mince words: They’re the ones who are really going to decide if this strike gets averted, and we all know it. And today’s news means that’s increasingly likely.
Jeez, I’m sick to death of hearing the Hollywood bigwigs repeat that old saw about residuals supposedly said by Lew Wasserman to the effect that “My plumber doesn’t charge me every time I flush the toilet”. Yeah, and years ago a lot more screenwriters in the motion picture business were regularly employed than, say, the Top 25 working today. Go back and read my Screenwriters In The Shit column in LA Weekly from a year ago to know just how horrible things are out there for formerly successful scribblers. They’re selling the family home, taking kids out of private school, moving out of Los Angeles because their film careers are over. For these so-called schmucks with Underwoods, residuals are keeping the mortgage paid and food on the table. The same is true, of course, for writers in television. Which is why any change in the formula for sharing profit from homevideos and television reruns and pay television between the writers and producers became a huge sticking point in the contract talks with that October 31st deadline fast approaching and a strike authorization pending. Now, the AMPTP expects the guild to dump its demand for doubling DVD residuals in exchange for at most a mild cost-of-living increase adjusted for inflation. Finally, there’s progress.
Remaining issues that need to be ironed out for the 12,000-member Writers Guild include New Media compensation. Look, that’s a fairly simple one to solve. Since nobody yet has a handle on how much money the Internet, mobile phones and the next tech and toys will yield, create a blue-ribbon panel to study the matter. Let it report back in two years’ time when all the guessing finally firms into realistic estimates. Then fight it out.
Finally, the studios and networks need to do something bold to get the guilds off their backs and stem a revolutionary revamp of residuals and New Media payments. Producers need to help the WGA’s and SAG’s eroding health care plans by bumping up contributions or finding some financing mechanism to shore up benefits.
Don’t get me wrong. The moguls are now ready for a strike, even though the WGA’s quick-on-the-draw timing to cripple TV pilot season and next year’s movies did catch the studios and networks by surprise. The majors are quietly announcing no more overtime as well as hiring freezes, which are expanded to include no more temps, contractors, or consultants (excluding those approved in conjunction with capital projects). And producers have started making quiet calls to convince certain writers to finish scripts or start new ones as “consultants”. Others in Hollywood are tightening their belts as well. Agencies are cutting expenses even deeper and warning secretaries and assistants there could be layoffs or a total shutdown. Some tenpercenteries are even bandying about that dreaded term “force majeure” to avoid having to pay agents if a long strike drags on and on. And all the ancillary businesses that depend on Hollywood will be hurt; they’ll disappear altogether or get bought out at bargain prices.
Finally, I don’t care if the moguls don’t want Warner Bros’ Barry Meyer or News Corp’s Peter Chernin, both of whom have taken a clear leadership role behind the scenes, to drag them out of the muck and mire. I don’t care if the producers don’t want to take up Jeffrey Katzenberg’s offer to play the hero. (Heck, he’s got to find something challenging to occupy his time since DreamWorks Animation only makes at most two films a year.) I don’t even care if the moguls call in that Republican louse Arnold Schwarzenegger to mediate with the guilds. (After all, Hollywood Democrats contributed to his re-election campaign. It’s time to call in a favor.) All I care is that no strike happens. Because I’ll fucking lose my mind if I have to post a labor story daily starting October 31st. That I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.