Peter Bart: Suits And Scribes Feel Agita As Layoffs Widen And WGA-ATA Crisis Looms

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It is difficult to remember a moment of greater agita at both the top and bottom rungs of Hollywood’s wobbly power pyramid.

At the executive level, CEOs agree this is surely the worst time in decades to be looking for a job thanks to a combination of acquisitions, consolidations and #MeToo agitations. Headhunters report they are swamped by the tide of wandering apparachiks.

And now we have a climactic week in the struggle between writers and their agents, creating potential agency retrenchment and writer displacement. “When men write for profit, they cannot afford to be delicate,” was a Horace Walpole quote that Evarts Ziegler, a famed lit agent, kept posted in his office.

At both levels, an end-of-an-era mood prevails. Executives realize they can no longer anticipate contracts offering career-long service. Tech-inspired entities like Netflix offer year-to-year “at will” deals. And given the corporate tumult, the only source of office camaraderie exists at freelance lairs at WeWork, Work Space or GoDaddy.

Meanwhile, those who ply the writing trade feel caught between agent-entrepreneurs who may or may not get them work and credit-hungry lawyer-managers who negotiate mainly for themselves. Writers always coveted their autonomy, never anticipating a moment when they might effectively end up working for agents who, they’d assumed, worked for them.

I identify with both sides of this soul-searching in that I spent years working as a writer, and also many as an executive who hired writers. I understand writers’ paranoia; I would not want to prepare a “look book” for hopeful writers surveying the landscape.

I also know what it’s like being approached by emissaries from HR, offering their buyouts with an attitude of freeway cops dispensing tickets.

So the scribes and the suits for once have something in common: Lean times at a moment of “big spends.” Consider last week’s chain reaction of cutbacks, layoffs and just plain beheadings: In acquiring Fox, Disney announced it would create a monolith to challenge the all-devouring streamers, but last week the Disney marauders fired echelons of executives and back-office personnel, dismissing entire marketing teams from franchises like Avatar, Planet of the Apes and X-Men.

In similar fashion, the self-styled Bell Heads at AT&T dismantled the top financial and marketing teams at HBO, then turned their shredder loose on the Turner units which once accounted for as much operating income as HBO and Warner Bros combined. Channels like TNT and TBS are to be stripped down, becoming sectors of a new entertainment unit alongside once proudly autonomous HBO. Comcast has also chopped its way through its DreamWorks acquisition and is expected to turn its attention to other entities, such as Sky.

To be sure, heads are rolling at a moment when mind-bending sums are being lavished on content. Netflix will burn through $15 billion in original and licensed content this year, unfazed by its existing $10 billion in debt. Apple, a new player, will likely spend $2 billion on content. The plethora of new shows already has opened up a whole new landscape of writing and directing gigs. Observers wonder how long the boom will last: Will streamer deals, for example, continue to offer lavish back-end buyouts for stars like Ryan Reynolds or directors like David Ayer?

Given all this, it’s easy to forget the body count. I made it a point this week to search out some of the newly unemployed — executives who suddenly found themselves in the out-box of the new media landscape.

“I have my feelers out,” one advised me. “But why do I feel instantly irrelevant?”

“I have consulted acting friends, asking them what they do between gigs to keep their spirits up,” said one senior distribution executive, newly unemployed. “They recommended a psychologist – good idea, but he was booked solid. So I’ve decided to take acting classes. I want to be unemployed in an entirely new profession.”

He also considered writing but decided that would, after all, be a hopeless long shot.

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