I’ve spent all day talking to sources on all sides of the WGA-mogul talks, and here is the latest news. I’ve opened comments now that I’m done posting.
(Keep refreshing… See updates below)
I’m told that Patric Verrone, Dave Young and John Bowman — the WGA leadership involved in Friday’s breakthrough session of the writer-mogul talks with Peter Chernin and Bob Iger — are recommending the deal hashed out Friday and briefed the guild’s negotiating committee today. There is also a regularly scheduled WGA board meeting today, and the leadership may brief the board about the deal but that’s not certain. I hear no one at the top of the guild will be asked to vote on the deal today. That can’t happen until the deal is drafted, and there’s the rub. I’m told that if something, or someone, gets tricky with the language or terms, then writing down what was agreed to becomes a major haggle. “Everything needs to be in writing. So there’s still a possibility that this thing could get fucked,” an insider explains to me. “The DGA has five months to put its shit in writing but the WGA has to get it all in writing before the strike can be called off. There has to be a draft and that has to be approved.”
Without problems, the draft could be done by week’s end, maybe longer. But I hear various people from inside and outside the union are pressuring the WGA to schedule the vote as soon as possible. Here’s why: once both the WGA negotiating committee and the WGA board approve the deal, then the guild leaders would call off the strike immediately. I’m told that was an integral part of the agreement because the moguls didn’t want to wait for the membership at large to weigh in on the deal. Among those pressing for this were Bob Iger, who for obvious reasons wants the picket lines to come down so Hollywood can feel free to attend ABC’s Academy Awards.
But there are genuine concerns that the negotiating committee and the board may not approve the deal, even though Verrone, Young and Bowman are behind it. (Though the votes do not have to be unanimous.) There are also genuine concerns that the WGA membership may not approve the deal — like what happened during the 1960 strike.
UPDATE — Tonight, this letter is going out to members from WGA Negotiating Committee Chair John Bowman in advance of the WGAW supposedly holding a general membership meeting at 6:30 PM Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium to provide an update on the negotiations:
Dear Fellow Members:
I would like to update you on where we stand with bargaining with the AMPTP. While we have made important progress since the companies re-engaged us in serious talks, negotiations continue. Regardless of what you hear or read, there are many significant points that have yet to be worked out.
In order to keep members abreast of the latest developments, informational meetings are being planned by both Guilds for this weekend-details to be announced. Neither the Negotiating Committee, nor the West Board or the East Council, will take action on the contract until after the membership meetings.
As the talks proceed, never forget that during this period it is critical for us to remain on the picket lines united and strong. We are all in this together.
So now is the time for everyone to back off. That’s right, BACK OFF. And to let the WGA leadership talk to its board and also its membership without outside interference.
Look, a ridiculously large number of Hollywood power players — from major feature film writers and TV showrunners, to agents and managers and lawyers, to executives and moguls — have been on the phone in recent weeks urging the media to pressure the WGA to take the DGA deal, or whatever is negotiated, and call off the strike before the Oscars. I’ve heard smart arguments and I’ve heard nonsensical arguments (like the big-time agent who described the TV showrunners as “the plantation owners” vs the TV writers who worked for them as “the cotton-pickers who should just damn well be grateful they have health and pension and get back to work already”.) But who was putting equal pressure on the moguls? Certainly not Variety, or the Los Angeles Times, or The New York Times. Outrageous that every mainstream media outlet influential in showbiz from the outset took the AMPTP shill position that the DGA deal was a great deal because it was negotiated by grown-ups and the WGA brats better take it or else. When it had been the moguls who have acted childish and churlish pre- and post-strike. Worse, they’d disengaged from the process, with occasional exceptions, and hadn’t met together even once. (Unlike 1988 when there was truly a sense of urgency and they regularly huddled in Bel Air living rooms.) If anybody, the media should have been pressuring the Hollywood CEOs to use the DGA deal as a good start. After all, everyone was making it seem like the shitty DGA deal was the only possible deal available to the writers. But only the scribes knew what terms were needed to make the strike worthwhile to them. I and other media didn’t need to arrogantly advise them on the details or even explain the big picture. This was their fight, not ours.
Judging from the thousands of emails I received during my illness, opinions within the WGA were running 3-to-1 that the DGA deal after its sketchy details were announced looked both promisingly incremental and fundamentally excremental. Incremental because it did address issues which the Hollywood CEOs previously withheld from their faux negotiations with the WGA, like an electronic sell-through formula. (And how long was everybody waiting for that to finally show up on the bargaining table?) And excremental because the deal’s ad-supported streaming payout was still insulting. Even the most short-sighted entertainment seers except the moguls could peer into the future and see that, for at least the next three years, ad-embedded streaming will be the delivery method of choice for media content producers, consumers and advertisers. It certainly is right now. And, given Wal-Mart’s recent decision to abandon the downloading biz at this time (because the light demand wasn’t worth the cost of the server farms), it certainly is for the life of the WGA’s next contract. But the moguls seemed to fashion the DGA deal in such a way as to undermine and eventually eradicate the old residual system they hate even though it keeps so many writers solvent. A screenwriter pal of mine credits residuals with creating the “middle class writer”. I personally know so many scribes who find themselves working one year, begging for work the next two, and afraid that as they get older they won’t have staying power in the scribbling business. Because the statistics back up that paranoia: the only people allowed to grow old gracefully employed in Hollywood are the moguls. As for residuals, the majority of the DGA membership get no direct residual payments but the big guns of the DGA all get profit participation on their projects. That leaves only 20% of that guild’s membership for whom residual payments are a lifeline. So the DGA deal could play well for the CEOs in the press and put pressure on the WGA leadership to take it or look unreasonable by comparison. But what the DGA needed and what the WGA needed were apples and oranges. When it comes to Hollywood deals, one size does not fit all.
Thankfully, it didn’t require a room full of rocket scientists to attempt to adapt the DGA deal to the needs of the WGA membership. It did require John Bowman to take a leadership role. Rightly or wrongly, he was always viewed as a moderate by the moguls compared to Young and Verrone whom the CEOs villified as the militants. “Bowman just had a better relationship with those guys because he was more of a known quantity having once been a big guy in TV,” an insider tells me. So it was Bowman who met with Peter Chernin, Barry Meyer and Les Moonves to break the ice back on January 7th at a meeting where supposedly the CEOs said they were sorry for acting like assholes during Phase I and II of the negotiations. From that confab, the WGA-mogul talks were recently reborn.
Another major difference was the presence of entertainment lawyer Alan Wertheimer who has long repped some of the major motion picture and TV scribes. Asked to step in on behalf of the WGA, Wertheimer “was someone who broke down what was being offered and presented the ramifications the way any lawyer does in a negotiation,” an insider told me. “He was extremely helpful.” Another told me, “He was kind of a hero.” The moguls knew they’d have to look him in the eye when this was all over, same as they’d have to look Bryan Lourd in the eye. (As opposed to the WGA’s leadership, whom the CEOs could go back to ignoring. Just like they do most Hollywood scribes.)
As the informal talks started, I kept worrying that the moguls would make good on their promise to me not to reward the WGA for striking (by giving them better terms than the directors and thus make the helmers look weak). But that was a ridiculous way to view the situation when a vital issue like residuals is part of the WGA contract’s DNA. At the same time, the Hollywood CEOs were startled by the distrust they found among the WGA leadership. Not only had weeks and months of dealing with Nick Counter, and believing AMPTP promises to put New Media terms on the table, poisoned the overall atmosphere. But also the moguls’ own lies. After all, Big Media had never bothered to revisit the weak formulas for home video or DVD before, so why should the writers believe the CEOs’ latest pledge to revisit the formulas for New Media in three years?
First, it took a lot of lobbying to convince the WGA leaders there would be no “significant” money in streaming for the next several years. (One source claimed that the WGA’s numbers were “quadruple” what was really the truth.) “The networks still get it as part of the license fee, and if you compare the viewers per rerun at $20K and the viewers of streams at $1,200, the stream deal is better,” an insider told me. “People need to be educated on the economics, and, fortunately, the WGA deal will give talent access to a lot of the info necessary to determine what’s fair in the future. It’s simply not possible to know today what will (or will not be) appropriate in 10 years. Fortunately, the deal is up in three, and the WGA has shown that it isn’t afraid to strike over these issues.”
Meanwhile, Chernin and Iger focused on addressing the WGA’s New Media residual needs without confusing them with the DGA’s. “To their credit, Bob and Peter said to the WGA, ‘Tell us what really concerns you.’ And that’s when things really started moving on questions about jurisidiction on the Internet and the third-year formula for streaming.”
At the same time, leaders of different dissident factions within the WGA (some made up of very powerful TV showrunners and feature film writers), approached the guild toppers with an ultimatum. These factions, who one source told me total 300 members in all and had been held in check up until then, declared that they would no longer promise to keep silent if a deal wasn’t done right away. “A lot of things came together Friday,” an insider told me. “Chernin was back. And Iger was there. And the guys on the WGA side knew if they didn’t come out with a deal this weekend that Monday was going to be a bad day. They’d been personally told by these different pockets of writers who knew what was going on that they would no longer be supportive and measured. They planned on going public. They planned to blow the guild up.”
UPDATE: *But tonight another source assured me that those who put pressure on the Guild to make a deal were only a handful of actual showrunners and not big-name ones. “Mainly a group of desperate people in the mix – including some non-writing producers – who were more concerned about getting back to work than getting a good deal.” According to one TV hyphenate personally involved in a letter drafted to Verrone, Young and Bowman that as of Friday was signed by 75 showrunners, it asked the WGA trio to obtain better terms than the DGA deal in a few key areas. “As one who was on the phone for two days getting signatures, these showrunners were plenty serious about what needed to get done. So, it wasn’t the influence of the negatives who held the negotiations hostage; our guys had plenty of ammo going in there to tell the other side that a bum deal would never get ratified by the majority of showrunners or their staffs.”*
Now it’s up to the WGA leadership to use the next weeks wisely. The writers don’t want this deal shoved down their throats any more than they wanted that done with the DGA deal. Yet it’s surprising that the current plan calls for just that. If indeed the board approves of the new deal, then the right thing to do is to let the membership vote before the strike is called off. That gives the WGA leadership time enough to complete the delicate dance of lowering members’ expectations about what could and couldn’t be accomplished.
Right now, if the WGA board accepts the deal, I’m told that the Back 9 of most scripted TV series could be saved along with a no-frills pilot season with less scripted series ordered than ever before. (And expect the upfront presentations to advertisers to consist of a lot more pleading than preening.) Some of the force-majeured deals could be reinstated. (But it’s important to remember that three times as many pacts would have been cancelled if the agents and lawyers hadn’t lobbied the networks and studios.) Feature films that were halted or thought lost could get going immediately. And, of course, the Oscars could be held. But what happens to all this back-to-work progress if the WGA membership votes down the deal? A bigger mess than even now?
Only the WGA members can decide how much more pain they are willing to endure with no guarantee that whatever is negotiated months from now (alongside SAG) is going to be any better than what has been negotiated now. The one thing this strike has done is to give writers a powerful voice that Hollywood has heard loud and clear. Don’t silence the WGA membership at this crucial juncture.