The Writers Guild Is Losing Ground


The WGA may have erred in demanding that reality show writers join its ranks, overshadowing the real issue of money for digital media

Hollywood union strikes have never been a dainty affair. On one side, you usually have powerful people with tons of money and even weightier egos. On the other side, you often have famous people (who also happen to have some money and fair-sized egos) and people who aspire to be famous (and one day have the wealth and ego-boost that fame brings). So as the writers' strike heads toward its seventh week with no end in sight, you know there won't be a quick, easy, or quiet end to the walkout called by the 8,000-member Writers Guild of America.

Indeed, it looks as if studio executives are prepared to wait out the writers for weeks, months, maybe more. For those of us at home, that means more warmed-over reruns and reality shows no self-respecting cable channel would dare offer under normal circumstances.

The problem is the issue really isn't what has been advertised—the sharing of whatever money the studios will one day make from distributing TV shows and movies over new digital methods such as the Internet or cell phones. In a surprise to just about everyone but the WGA leadership, the writers offered up a series of demands more likely to change their relationship with studios than to get the 3.5% pay hike they're seeking. The key demand: allowing the WGA to extend its membership to cover people who "write" for reality shows such as ABC's (DIS) Extreme Makeover or NBC's (GE) Biggest Loser.

Fomenting Distrust

Forget for a moment the oxymoron of having writers create what should be the real-life stories of ordinary folks losing weight or needing a home. To the studio chiefs, this is a naked grab for power by a union that has always been among the most difficult for Hollywood to deal with. The studio-backed Alliance for Motion Picture & Television Producers fired back on Dec. 7, calling the proposal "an absolute roadblock to any further progress in these negotiations."

It's pretty clear the studios have been emboldened to make the writers sweat through Christmas. The plan, it seems, is to make the WGA membership increasingly distrustful of their negotiating leaders and to drive a wedge between the two. Rank-and-file writers likely don't care much about whether the WGA covers the projected 600 or so reality writers who would be included under their proposal. And the WGA has certainly angered rival unions whose support they could use, namely the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees.

IATSE, a 50,000-person union, says as many as 40,000 editors, grips, and others have been laid off as the strike shut down some 100 TV shows. "I don't believe the WGA ever intended to bargain in good faith," IATSE President Thomas Short says. The talks, he adds, won't continue, "until the WGA leadership starts behaving responsibly, which is unlikely."

A Nasty Little Surprise for the WGA

IATSE has its own issues with the WGA: The writers on reality shows are mostly editors, who are covered by their union. The WGA tried, and failed, to organize them in the past. But the attitude of the WGA, as outlined by Short, is beginning to splinter the WGA leadership and some of its rank and file. "I want unity, I want progress, I want a good deal," writes Scary Movie 3 writer Craig Mazin on the Artful Writer blog. "I just think [the WGA leadership] is hurting us now, and hurting us in a fashion that could leave permanent scars." Mazin, and I suspect a growing number of writers on strike, would just as soon scrap the reality writer provision and concentrate on getting a piece of the action from new media, which he rightly says is "the stuff that matters."

You know that the suits at Spago and Mr. Chow are yucking it up when they read statements like that. Eventually, they figure, Mazin will have plenty of company and WGA President Patric Verrone will begin to lose control over his independent-minded membership. And when he does, the studios may well have a nasty little surprise for the union: a signed, sealed, and delivered deal with another union, the Directors Guild of America, which has long been rumored to be ready to launch its own contract talks over many of the same issues.

The DGA, whose deal with the studios expires in June, has always been far easier for the studio brass to deal with than the writers. And if the directors and studios can come to a negotiated settlement, it would serve as a blueprint the writers may well be forced to accept, says former WGA associate counsel Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney with the Los Angeles firm of TroyGould. The studios, says Handel, "are looking for a way to walk away from one table and walk toward another one."

Is That Asking Too Much?

You betcha. And that means the studio brass will continue to hammer away at the WGA, get some allies on their side, and then wait for WGA members to lose confidence in their leaders. It's a divide-and-conquer strategy that has worked before. Back in 2004, the studios got the DGA to agree to a new contract and then watched as WGA members sheepishly came in and signed on after holding out for months (BusinessWeek.com, 11/7/07).

This time around the issues are much larger. The market for digital delivery of TV shows and movies could be huge, and the writers want a bigger chunk of the revenues than the studios want to give them. But this is a leverage game and the studios clearly are looking for the leverage that, it seems, the union's overreaching may have given them. The studio executives clearly don't intend to give much to the unions. And after making the writers shiver outside in the cold for a few more months, they won't have to.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau manager for BusinessWeek.

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