UPDATE: Hollywood writers tonight gave their guild leaders an overwhelming authorization to strike. A walkout could come as soon as November 1st, and there’s intense pressure to do that because it would greatly impact episodic TV. But I hear that soon is unlikely as long as progress is made during the ongoing negotiations with studios and networks. The Writer’s Guild Of America announced tonight that the 5,507 ballots cast among its 12,000 members was the highest turnout in its history — and underscores the passion and solidarity of the writers to win concessions from the Alliance Of Motion Picture & Television Producers.
“It shows an overwhelmingly engaged and activated community of writers who care about this negotiation and support our goals,” WGA West president Patric Verrone, himself an animation writer, stated tonight. “Writers do not want to strike, but they are resolute and prepared to take strong, united action to defend our interests. What we must have is a contract that gives us the ability to keep up with the financial success of this ever expanding industry.”
Earlier this evening, I reported the WGA East authorized the strike by a blowout 90% — and it was expected to be more anti-strike than the much larger WGA West. “This historic vote sends an unequivocal message to the AMPTP, loud and clear,” said WGA east president Michael Winship. “We will not be taken advantage of and we will not be fooled.”
Tonight’s total WGA tally blew away the producers. Judging from the phone calls I’ve received from several of the Hollywood moguls, the vote had its intended effect. As I reported last night, the strike authorization “Yes” vote has OK’ed a walkout that will bring Hollywood to its knees when it happens. All that was left to be determined were the percentages by which the 12,000-strong Writer’s Guild of America members wanted the labor action. These numbers were important to both the WGA and to the studios and networks in order to gauge the strength of the strike fervor. The feeling was always that if the total of the “Yes” votes was anywhere above 75%, the studios and networks had a giant headache on their hands.
I say the moguls shouldn’t make the mistake of consoling themselves that most of the writers’ ballots were mailed in before AMPTP took that residuals rollback off the bargaining table. Because it wouldn’t have mattered: the percentages would have been the same. But that was a huge concession (despite the WGA’s continued spin that it wasn’t), and for the first time it sparked a mood of optimism among the writers that a strike could be averted. Yes, the WGA contract will expire Oct. 31 without a new one in place, but that date is meaningless because the WGA negotiators are not expected to call a strike until weeks after — in fact, right before New Year’s when the timing will be most strategic and the moguls’ vacations ruined. But intense pressure is coming from the TV writers to strike sooner rather than later in order to hurt the primetime business to the greatest possible extent. 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.
The good news is the WGA and AMPTP are returning to the bargaining table on Monday for a face to face session, which has been rare during these negotiations going on since mid-July. The bad news is if the producers don’t understand the degree to which this is a very determined and unified guild in no mood to be pushed around on the dozens of other rollbacks remaining besides residuals. The writers’ negotiating team is determined to bring members a very real downloading income stream. Sure, right now no one knows what those revenues will be, but the guild won’t move past the difficult New Media issue when the current WGA rallying cry is “Remember the DVDs!”
This WGA team isn’t gonna fold like the previous crew led by John Wells because this time around the writers are really in charge, not the hyphenates. (I still marvel at the way Wells ran for WGA president in 1999 and won even though he was a preeminent TV producer, split the Writer’s Guild into haves and have nots, then failed in 2001 to stand firm on any of the hard issues so as to ensure no strike would interrupt his own productions. As if that weren’t chutzpah enough, shortly after the WGA contract was resolved, Wells quietly informed his West Wing writers that the provisions in their own contracts for increased pay and promotions would not be honored in the 3rd season. The timing made it almost impossible for them to find new jobs.)
Again, I’ll reiterate that this strike can be averted only if the studios and networks decide to. There’s no question that the WGA top management and negotiating committee — Patric Verrone, Dave Young, John Bowman — outsmarted the moguls who thought there wouldn’t be a separate WGA labor action until June when SAG’s contract came due. The producers planned primarily for that timing, not for now. So studios found themselves suddenly scrambling to lock down projects and productions they thought had several more months of unfettered development before a walkout. But the networks were really besides themselves at the WGA’s earlier-than-anticipated deadline: with so many deals and so much development done between the start of pilot season in January and the upfronts in May, a WGA walkout even as late as January 1st means network TV is toast. And, at a time when it can least afford it financial- and viewer-wise. (C’mon, how many consumers even differentiate anymore between broadcasters and cable? It’s all just programming.) And that’s not even taking into account how many of this fall’s new network shows are underwhelming — if not downright tanking. Worse for the TV moguls are the strict strike rules laid down by the WGA organizers last week. TV production would have to shut down. Movie production possibly limp along. No wonder AMPTP’s Nick Counter threw a temper tantrum and threatened a lawsuit.
So far, the WGA has been wily. But they need to stop short of willfull as well, especially with Friday’s Dow Jones ending 360 points down, the current credit crunch, and the spectre of further infotainment consolidation (like General Electric selling NBC Universal to Time Warner). As for the AMPTP, this is no time for arrogance. The moguls need to provide an additional income stream that the guild can sell to its members as a major victory. Of course, New Media can still be tweaked and studied well into the future, but even a trickle of new cash flow can transform the WGA’s attitude that it’s losing too much financial ground to Big Media.
Do it, and do it now.