Networks/Studios vs TV Showrunners: Why They're Now On A Collision Course; Showrunners Pledge Solidarity Response To Breach Of Contract 'We'll Sue' Letters

News And Analysis: I now have all the details from all the different sides of that big argumentative powwow by TV showrunners that took place yesterday where they voted and agreed that 1) they will return to work and perform their producer duties, overseeing the non-writing production of their shows, as soon as the studios return in good faith to the bargaining table, and 2) they also agreed to stand by any fellow showrunner who is sued for breach of contract for not crossing the WGA picket line.

“But one of the greatest feelings was a passionate consensus to end the meeting,” Matthew Weiner of AMC’s Mad Men said privately afterwards. “Showrunners stood up in
support over 95% in agreement, and pledged to stay the course of our current actions. Voices were heard, arguments listed, and then unity declared. It was pretty amazing actually.”

Among the big news is that they’ve been sent “breach of contract” letters from CBS Paramount yesterday telling them that if they don’t report back to work then they’ll be sued. The news was announced at a closed door, extremely secret meeting of 115 showrunners who gathered at the Writers Guild Of America headquarters to discuss strike-related issues amongst themselves after first showing up to picket collectively at the Disney gate, then going en masse to lunch at The Smokehouse. (I broke the news of the confab yesterday afternoon.) “The CBS letters yesterday said that if the showrunners don’t report back into work for their producing duties, they’re in breach and they’ll be sued.” No other showrunners had received letters yet from their respective networks or studios, the gathering was told. The CBS letters news was received somberly by the group. “Since CBS is first, it became clear that Les [Moonves] is the most pissed,” a source at the meeting told me. “All the other showrunners now expect to get similar letters.” After a group discussion, the showrunners came to an agreement on how to deal with this threat to them. “The writers agreed that, if anybody gets sued, the showrunners will all stand together. Those who are still working will go out and join us on the picket lines, and, if we’re all back at work, then we’ll all go out,” a source told me. “That’s if we come back.”

Let me say this upfront: if the networks and studios plan on really suing the showrunners, then they’re going to smash the very underpinnings which support the entire Hollywood system. One of the main reasons that the guilds exist is to perform all the administrative functions that producers don’t want to do, like health, pension, credits, arbitration, etc. Crissakes, if the WGA didn’t decide who wrote what for both the writers and the studios, then we wouldn’t be able to count the number of lawsuits emanating from every TV show and movie or the amount of billable hours outside lawyers would chalk up.

The reality is that everyone in the entertainment industry bends over backwards not to initiate lawsuits because the powers-that-be have too much to hide. They don’t want to air their dirty laundry. They don’t want to expose their tricky accounting. They don’t want to swear to tell the truth in a deposition or on a witness stand where opposing counsel can ask them anything or everything in order to embarrass them or even shame them. Example: the Coming To America lawsuit. Another example: Katzenberg v Disney. I was in the courtroom the day when this nightmare exchange took place:

Bert Fields: “Did you say Mr. Katzenberg was the ‘tip of your pompom’?” “Did you say Mr. Katzenberg was your ‘retriever’?” “Did you tell Mr. Schwartz that you ‘hated’ Mr. Katzenberg?” Did you say, ‘I think I hate the little midget’?”

Michael Eisner (so red-faced he was positively florid): “I think you’re getting into areas that are ill-advised… If you pursue this line of questioning, it will put in the public record those things that shouldn’t be in the public record.”

But here’s the best argument: when all is said and done, when the strike is over (and it will be over someday), the showrunners and the networks/studios are going to have to work together.  Every mogul to a one has complained to me over the years how there aren’t enough showrunners. So now they’re going to alienate those few they do have?

What’s ironic here is that networks/studios love showrunners because these super-talented creatives are the driving force, the inspiration, the soul, of TV shows. C’mon, the moguls all claw and fight to hire the best ones for big money. Even those showrunners that flop or behave badly are still hired year after year, series after series.

Everyone needs to remember that any breach-of-contract letters are coming from the lawyers in business affairs. Last time I looked, the moguls were their bosses. So I say, no way the network/studio CEOs are going to throw away these valuable assets. Because Hollywood is still very much a town of relationships, even during a strike. Same applies to the conventional wisdom that the studios are purposely waiting for the 2-3 0r 6-8 week period to pass so that they can force majeure many of the large overall deals they made with TV writers, many of whom have 7 figure deals yet are producing nothing right now. Then, so the theory goes, the studios/networks are going to start cutting their on-lot POD deals. Once they’ve done all that, you watch, they’ll return to the negotiating table, hoping by then the union is divided. One problem: a collaborative business will be toast.

Before I get into the rest of this news and analysis, a nugget: Paradigm talent agency owner Sam Gores, the really rich guy determined to grow the merger-frenzied tenpercentery into a powerhouse and give it a higher profile, proved incredibly savvy and picked up the check for all the showrunners’ lunches at The Smokehouse, saying “Compliments of Paradigm”. An internal email sent about it inside the agency said Paradigm picked up the tab for the entire group “to show support for their cause.”

The Disney gate show of strength by the 150 showrunners Wednesday, organized by the WGA, was a seminal event. Their post-picket confab started over lunch at The Smokehouse, but then, fearing they’d be overheard by diners in the next room, they decided they could have a more open and candid conversation at the WGA headquarters a few hours later. A few dozen showrunners fell out so in all 115 met together there.

This was, by no means, a polite conversation between colleagues. It was heated and vociferous, but it ended in hard-fought, heavily argued agreement. The WGA would have everyone believe the showrunners are 90/10 in support of everything strikewise. The AMPTP would have everyone believe it’s the other way around claiming the showrunners are fearful of really speaking their “hearts and minds”. Bullshit by both sides. Last night’s very open forum showed very clearly that the showrunners there were overwhelmingly in support of the strike, but they were 60/40 split on the best way to conduct it. The meeting broke down like this: 60% voiced absolute support for a 100% work stoppage by showrunners as a way to shut down the shows and hurt the networks and studios, and 40% wanted to stop all writing but continue their producing duties.

There was deepo disagreement over whether showrunners should do post-production or not. Some of the showrunners felt that, if they didn’t do post, the networks would ruin their shows.

This very vocal minority worried about the quality of their shows made the point to the assembled crowd that it seemed unfair to pressure themselves when film director/writers haven’t stopped directing, and the actor/writers haven’t stopped acting, but the TV producer/writers are being asked to stop editing. “Why isn’t J.J. Abrams being given a hard time for starting to direct Star Trek tomorrow? Why isn’t Tina Fey being given a hard time for acting on 30 Rock? Why is this strike being waged on the back of the showrunners?” one hyphenate asked.

This minority gave an impassioned plea to be allowed to edit without being treated like an outcast. They stood up and told a personal story about what situation they’re in with their individual show. Greg Garcia of NBC’s My Name Is Earl spoke about how one of his actors called to say he’d helped lock the cut of an episode and how that made Garcia feel sick. “How is two episodes of my show sucking going to hurt GE?” he asked.

On the other side, Greg Daniels of NBC’s The Office spoke proudly about why and how he’d shut his show down. But Marc Cherry of ABC’s Desperate Housewives urged the majority side “not to pressure” the showrunners on the minority side.

It was agreed that the showrunners probably only have power for another month or two. Though many series have been shut down, a lot of ABC Touchstone and Warner Bros are still shooting this week, along with NBC Universal hourlongs. “Next week will be a watershed week,” the group heard a leader say. That was why the majority of showrunners felt they had to use their power to “really hurt” the networks/studios. But the minority argued that  into bargaining in good faith. But the minority response was that, if the showrunners were going to “sacrifice” the quality of their shows, then they wanted to get something positive out of it, like using their producing duties as leverage to bring the networks/studios back to the good-faith bargaining. “Why are we worried about hurting them? Let’s get them to negotiate,” a minority viewholder stated.

Another summed up the minority position this way, “We want to win this thing. We just want to do it the right way. We just want to know, if we’re staying out, what we’re sacrificing for.”

Then the voting began. There was even a vote about the vote — whether it had to be unanimous or not.

To reiterate, the showrunners voted and agreed: “That we will return to work and perform our producer duties, overseeing the non-writing production of our shows, as soon as the studios return in good faith to the bargaining table,” a source there told me. “We also agreed to stand by any fellow showrunner who is sued for breach of contract for not crossing the WGA picket line.”

There was no vote about the inquity of having director/writers helming, or actor/writers acting. “They skipped over that,” one attendee told me. “But the militant faction of the guild said they’ll pressure those people next.”

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