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WGA STRIKE: Whedon & Mutant Enemy at the Gates

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
WGA STRIKE: Whedon & Mutant Enemy at the Gates
All photos by Valerie Perez.
Fans pose with Whedon.
Amongst the fans can be spotted Brian K. Vaughan bottom left, with the beard coming in, and writer Jane Espenson at the far left middle.

On Friday, December 7th, the fifth week of the WGA strike took a decidedly bleak turn: negotiations between the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers (AMPTP) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) broke down yet again. But the day was also marked by a remarkable outpouring of support for the writers from the fan community in the form of Mutant Enemy day. Mutant Enemy is the name of Joss Whedon’s production company, and since Whedon has been an outspoken proponent of the writers’ position since day one of the strike, Fans4writers.com invited the man himself, along with writing and acting alums from Joss Whedon shows past and present, to join 400 fans outside Fox studios to express their support for the striking writers. In our continuing coverage of the strike, CBR News was on the scene at Fox Studios to bring you a full report.

Not only has Joss Whedon garnered heaps of praise from critics and fans alike for his work in both television (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly”) and comic books (“Astonishing X-Men,” “Runaways,” “Buffy: Season 8”), he also comes from a long line of screen scribes. He is, in fact, the first ever third generation television writer. But, as Whedon himself told CBR News outside Fox Studios on Saturday, Mutant Enemy Day was not about him.

“I don’t think about this as something that has to do with me, I think it has to do with the shows and the stories and all the writers who are here, and the actors, they’re all part of the same thing,” Whedon said. “These guys are part of it, too, the fans, and they get that. And this is a very tangible way for us to express that.” And fan support was nothing if not steadfast: Fans trekked to the Fox Studios gate from the four corners of the continental U.S. and beyond, some from as far as England and Australia.

Fans4writers is a pro-writer movement that sprung up when the strike began, founded by longtime contributors to the preeminent Joss Whedon fansite, Whedonesque. Whedonesque keeps fans up to date on all thing Joss, including the latest news on the extended Whedon family of writers and actors who worked with the writer on one project or another. Whedon, who has no blog of his own, also uses Whedonesque as a forum to post his thoughts on the strike.

That Friday morning, fans from far and wide amassed at the Cheviot Hills Recreation Center parking lot across the street from Fox Studios, in preparation for the four-hour picketing event. The fans4writers crew thanked the teeming mass of fans for coming to show their support, and reminded them of the distinction between a strike event and a convention appearance. “At conventions, they’re there for us,” fans4writers media coordinator Adam Levermore-Rich told the fans. “Today, we’re there for them.”

The forecast predicted rain that day, and in fact, the beginning of the picket was marred by light showers, but that did not deter the marching fans. The fans came dressed accordingly, and WGA representatives distributed plastic covers to protect the cardboard picket signs from the elements. It was at this point that the fans crossed the street to the Fox Studios gate to join Joss Whedon and his Mutant Enemy brethren.

Whedon leads the crowd across the street to the Fox Studios gate.
Nathan Fillion and Joss Whedon picketing.

Fans hoping to catch a glimpse of cast and crew members from their favorite Whedon shows were not disappointed. “Buffy” actors Nicholas Brendon (Xander), Juliet Landau (Drusilla), Harry Groener (Mayor Wilkins) and Eliza Dushku (Faith) were in attendance. Eliza Dushku is also slated to star in “Dollhouse,” Whedon’s highly anticipated return to television, now tabled indefinitely until the strike is over. Sarah Michelle Gellar could not make it to Mutant Enemy Day, but the one-time Slayer did donate a wide selection of donuts to help keep the picketers on their feet. “Angel’s” J. August Richards (Gunn) and Amy Acker (Fred/Illyria) walked the line as well, along with “Firefly” actors Nathan Fillion (Mal), Morena Baccarin (Inara), Summer Glau (River), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Ron Glass (Shepherd Book) and Michael Fairman (Niska). Whedon’s stable of writers was also well represented, with scribes like Tim Minear, Ben Edlund, Jane Espenson, Marti Noxon, David Fury and Drew Goddard hefting signs to support their union. And though he has yet to work on a Whedon TV series, writer Brian K. Vaughan (who recently penned an arc of Dark Horse’s “Buffy: Season 8”) was in attendance as well, sporting a thick strike beard: the writer has not shaved since the strike began, and has vowed to leave his facial hair unbound until an agreement is reached.

It wasn’t just veteran screenwriters walking the picket lines at Fox that day: relative newcomers like Kaita Mpambara also came out to show their support. Mpambara was, until recently, one of the recipients of the coveted Disney/ABC Writing fellowship. “We were originally told in the fellowship that should the strike come to pass, that we in the fellowship would still be allowed to continue to write, and we would be unscathed because we’re not really high enough up,” Mpambara said. “Then, two days before the strike was supposed to kick into high gear, we suddenly get called into the office, and it was announced that for some reason, the lawyers for ABC and the lawyers for the writers guild were unable to reach an agreement about our status, and because the two sides had suddenly come to loggerheads, if we were to continue to work at ABC, that would be considered scabbing. And since all of us have loyalty to the guild, because all of us respect so much what is going on here, we could not in good conscience continue to work there knowing that it would be detrimental to the guild, so we all unanimously decided to break with the ABC/Disney fellowship, and so now we’re all of us out on the lines around town, doing what we can to try to fight the good fight, and hope that justice prevails.”

Ben Edlund, who worked with Whedon on “Angel” and “Firefly,” and is currently a writer and co-executive producer on “Supernatural,” told CBR News that he’s been blown away by the outpouring of support for the writers’ cause. “I think it’s one of the resources that this strike in particular has, which is that there’s a certain profile to the activity here,” Edlund said. “The whole industry is a high-profile industry, and ultimately I think the best thing that could happen is for people to recognize that this is an anti-corporate struggle, we’re actually globally in an anti-corporate struggle, and any place that this conflict takes place is a good place to support.”

Edlund was not optimistic about the outlook of the strike, at least in the short run. “It needs to move forward with a tremendous amount of force to satisfy me,” Edlund said. “And by the way I don’t need any more money. That’s not my point, I’m fine. And I’m not even rich, which doesn’t matter. But there are people in this system that need money, and this is not a mode of employment that gives consistent benefits, and it’s a hard lifestyle to get through unless you become wildly successful.” With as much as 49% of the WGA membership in between projects at any given time, the residuals they receive for the reuse of their earlier work is the bread and butter that keeps the middle-class of writers afloat.

When it came to the outlook of the negotiations, Whedon was of the same opinion as Edlund. “I think this is going to take a long time, I always have,” Whedon said. “I have always thought they were going to draw this out, I never thought anything else. You have to believe that, you have to have that attitude, you have to think, ‘I’ve got to be here for as long as it takes.’ And when somebody gets weak, somebody else will help them out. That’s what these guys are here to prove, that everybody has a support system, everybody in the creative community and beyond. We’ll be helping each other out, we’ll be keeping each other strong.”

“Firefly’s” Ron Glass came out to show his support.
“Firefly’s” Summer Glau with some fans

When WGA and AMPTP negotiators resumed talks on November 26th, for the briefest of moments it appeared that the studios might have returned to the table in good faith. On the 29th, the AMPTP issued a statement rife with spin, pledging to enter into an uncharacteristically magnanimous New Economic Partnership with the WGA. To that end, they put forth a New Media proposal, prompting the WGA to suspend talks until December 4th to properly consider it. Closer inspection, however, revealed the new proposal to be little more than a massive rollback.

One of the sticking points of the strike has been the studio formulas for residual payments that writers are entitled to receive when studios reuse their work, specifically as it applies to New Media (internet, cell phones, etc.) which is not currently under WGA jurisdiction. The AMPTP proposed a $250 fixed payment for a year’s reuse of an hour-long TV episodic (a mere fraction of the $20,000 writers receive for a year’s worth of network reruns) and no residuals whatsoever for streamed theatrical content. The so-called New Economic Partnership refused to grant the WGA jurisdiction over original Internet content, and proposed a 0.03% residual formula for digital downloads (identical to the already inequitable DVD rate that has been in place since the advent of home video in the mid 1980s).

The WGA returned to the negotiating table on December 4th with a counter-offer in hand. This included a tiered payscale based on the number of times a streaming video is viewed, and a fair market value proposal designed to protect writers against vertical integration and self dealing. But the AMPTP not only categorically rejected this proposal in full, they also issued an ultimatum to the Writers Guild: either they drop some of their key proposals, or the AMPTP would break off negotiations. AMPTP President Nick Counter was true to his word: when the WGA refused to concede to the producers’ demands, Counter and the AMPTP negotiators walked, promptly issuing a nasty and shrewdly worded statement blaming the writers for the impasse.

To all appearances, the AMPTP’s recent actions have been carefully orchestrated to demoralize and divide the WGA membership. In a particularly telling move, the AMPTP recently retained a PR firm called Fabiani and Lehane, also known as “the Masters of Disaster.” And the AMPTP’s demoralizing tactics come as no surprise to Joss Whedon. “This is how you run a strike when you’re the bad guy,” Whedon said. “You bring them up, then you bring them down. You get their hopes up, and you say you made a good-faith offer. Their good-faith offer was nothing, it was a good-faith insult. I believe that’s what they do so they can send us to Christmas in fear for our jobs and in many cases for people’s futures and for their homes. And that’s what they want to do, they want to create fear. And they can create fear, but they can’t create the divisiveness that they’re counting on, it’s not going to happen.”

Whedon told CBR News that in the 20 years since the last WGA strike, public awareness of exactly what goes into producing a television series has grown by leaps and bounds. “Some of that has to do with the internet, and some of it has to do with TV and movies crossing over, and some of it has to do with common fricking sense, but more people understand about the process of making television, they understand that everybody’s involved, that a prop master can make a show glorious,” Whedon said. “Look at ‘The Office,’ half the acting staff is the writing staff, and that’s never happened before, really, not since ‘Your Show of Shows.’ And so there’s this melding, a truer understanding that it’s not us against them. The actors and the writers, they’re in the collaboration business. And also the actors know, if the writers are crushed, they’re next. And I’m not saying that in a cynical way, it’s just the truth, they know the fight we’re fighting is a fight they’re going to have to fight.”

With the expiration of the SAG contract still six months out, Whedon did admit that the timing of the strike was unfortunate, but he is also of the mind that it could not be avoided. “The idea of striking this early was to stop [the studios] from creating the backlog they were trying to create,” Whedon said. Since writing a script is one of the first steps in the filmmaking process, the backlog of scripts completed before the strike began have already given the AMPTP a comfortable buffer of projects to weather the storm of the strike. “But I don’t think they can do without us as well as they think they can.

Whedon addresses the Mutant Enemy Day strikers.
Ben Edlund

“Originally I think the idea was to strike at the same time as the actors,” Whedon continued. “But we knew that it would be nine months before there was even an episode of television missing, and we also knew that they were never, ever going to give us anything resembling a fair deal, so we had to come out early.”

Whedon, whose self-imposed hiatus from TV was due in no small part to what he calls his “Merry Marvel Midlife Crisis,” hoped the strike would give him the opportunity to catch up on his comic book projects, but his role as union activist has proved to be a full time job in and of itself. “But it is extremely gratifying to have something where you can just sit down and write, which every writer needs to do,” Whedon said. Whedon went on to say that when his four year old son caught his father writing a comic book script, the youth batted an inquisitive eye. “You’re on strike,” the boy had said. “Why are you writing?” Whedon explained to his son that the writers aren’t striking against comic book companies. “We have a fair deal from them, and a partnership with them and it’s all good,” Whedon told the boy. The next day, Whedon rattled off his itinerary before he left for work, which included picketing at Fox and going to his office to do some writing. “And [my son] just gave me a squinty-eyed look, he’s like, ‘Comic books, right?'”

The Mutant Enemy picket adjourned promptly at 2:00 p.m., but not before Whedon briefly addressed the crowd. “You people are causing a disturbance,” Whedon told his fans. “Thank you so much for causing it. Thank you guys from the bottom of our hearts, this does so much, not just for us, but for the people who hear about it, who see what happened here today, how much support we have in the community. It’s not just about the writers, it’s about the entire creative community, and the country, and the unions, you guys understand that, you came out here and did the time to prove it.”

The picketing may have ended at 2:00, but the day’s festivities did not. Fans4writers hosted a post-picket picnic at the park across the street from the studio. Fans were treated to free food, complimentary “Buffy the musical” kits and a final chance to interact with Whedon.

The bulk of the WGA picketing is taking place in Los Angeles and New York, but Whedon intends to widen that net, starting with a rally in Boston next week where he’ll picket alongside his father (who also weathered the 1988 WGA strike). “We may go to Portland after that, we’re having a national leaflet day, we’re doing everything we can,” Whedon pledged. “I expect to be in this for the long haul, and I expect to spend all of that time finding ways to get the word out, to drum up support, to keep people on the lines, to keep their feet okay and keep them fed, and make them never lose sight of how incredibly important this issue is.”

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