It's Time To Seriously Solve This Strike

Over the next days, I’d like to float several suggestions for moving the WGA-AMPTP strike talks out of the axis of paralysis they’re in now. I’m not presuming to act like a know-it-all. But like any journalist covering the business of Hollywood I spend all day talking to very smart people (as well as a lot of mouthbreathers) who make up all facets of the entertainment business, and what I’m about to write reflects their expert opinion and analysis which I can’t just ignore. I’ll update this thread of thought throughout the evening (because I have many different points to cover), plus my Day 3 strike notes:

It was oldtime movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who thought Hollywood a bizarre business because “the assets all go home at night”. On the other hand, only a handful of industries can boast assets who double as cultural icons. I’ve been hearing from a cross-section of entertainment power players that a new paradigm needs to emerge out of the wreckage of these pre-strike AMPTP/WGA negotiations. Call them actors and directors and writers, call them showrunners and hyphenates, call them by the umbrella term “mogul artists,” these are the 25 to 30 Hollywood icons who have incredible leverage in this town because of their big and small screen personas. They use that clout for their careers, and philanthropy, and social causes and political candidates. But they rarely use it for the greater good of the business of Hollywood. (If they did, they’d start by relieving everyone of having to endure a mind-numbing Academy Awards broadcast year in and year out. But I digress…)

By contrast, the moguls huddle regularly on industry issues like financial syndication, ratings and piracy and compete but also compromise with one another because lawsuits entail the airing of everyone’s dirty laundry. But the only time I’ve ever heard of Hollywood CEOs caving on a major negotiation is when they get in the same room with a Steven Spielberg, or a Tom Hanks, or an Adam Sandler, or a Judd Apatow, or a Shonda Rhimes, or a J.J. Abrams, or an Akiva Goldsman. There’s just something so needy within the Hollywood moguls’ psyche that they want to be liked and respected by the creatives they in turn like and respect. (I assume this is why these businessmen make TV and movies instead of toothpaste and mattresses.) Therefore, any professional, personal and even psychological pressure put by these top-of-the-heap artists on the studio and network bosses could make all the difference in the guild contract talks being held now and in the very near future. Some of that is going on, but not enough.

Sure, Hollywood loves to make fun of agents. But I’ve received countless calls in recent days from partners in the tenpercenteries panicked that their companies can’t survive a prolonged walkout. This is especially true of the so-called “second-tier” agencies. One of those toppers told me he’d been thinking of retiring anyway, but now he’s filled with angst that his company’s doors may have to shut permanently. So because they have so much at stake, I say, “Bring On The Agents”.

For crissakes, these people negotiate for a living on behalf of clients like the writers. And they’re licensed by the state. And they make multi-million dollar deals based on their word. They could, under the auspices of their Association of Talent Agents, mediate this dispute. Look, I respect these guys. I have confidence that they could work out a proposed settlement lickety-split which at least could provide the basis for bargaining. What everyone’s forgetting here is that one of the reasons Lew Wasserman could solve Hollywood labor strife was because he was an agent long before he became a studio mogul. I say put the board of the ATA and the major moguls together, sideline Nick Counter and Patric Verrone (who rightly or wrongly are increasingly viewed by the other side as the problem, not the solution, because of personality issues), and let the negotiating truly begin over lunch at The Grill and golf at Riviera Country Club.

Today, the media keep asking me how long I think the strike will last. So I’ll say it here. For all the reasons I’ve already reported, both sides in this fight are further apart than they have ever been, and that’s saying a lot. Both sides believe they have fresh and ample reasons not to go back into negotiations anytime soon or even backchannel. They claim they can’t trust the other side enough to talk about scheduling new AMPTP/WGA negotiations much less trying private talks. But backchannelling has been the only successful way labor strife in Hollywood has been settled in the past.

So now I’ll bottom-line this: Really smart people have told me that if this walkout doesn’t settle in the next few weeks, say, by December 15th, then there may not be an incentive for the moguls to settle it until June when the Screen Actors Guild contract expires. As for the Director’s Guild, whose contract is up next June as well but will settle it sooner, everyone expects the DGA to fold like pup tents: no shocker there. In film, the studios prepared for this labor action starting two years ago. But I broke the news pre-strike that the Big Media and Hollywood CEOs viewed this TV season as a total loss and welcomed the walkout as an automatic “do-over” that would allow them to regroup and then refashion their business models. At the same time, the writers guild two years ago began to draw a line in the sand on New Media and Internet which they’re etching deeper with every turn on the picket line. I’m not passing judgment on whether either of these positions is right or wrong. But I am saying that this is a horrific situation. Yes, it is.

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