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WGA the Dog: CBR News Examines the WGA Strike

by  in Movie News, TV News Comment
WGA the Dog: CBR News Examines the WGA Strike
All photos by Emmett Furey and Nick Murphy

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, by now you’ve probably heard that four weeks ago, negotiations broke down between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the multi-employer bargaining unit known as the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers (AMPTP), resulting in the first WGA strike since 1988.

In recent years there has been more and more overlap between the comic book industry and the entertainment industry, with small screen veterans like Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) making names for themselves in comics, and comics luminaries like Jeph Loeb (“Batman: The Lone Halloween”) and Brian K. Vaughan (“Y: The Last Man”) making the leap to network television on “Heroes” and “Lost,” respectively — to say nothing of the slew of comics-to-film adaptations seen recently. CBR News already spoke to a number of writers who straddle both worlds about what the strike means for the comics industry. Now we have an in-depth look at what caused the long-brewing strike, and exactly what it means for the writers and the entertainment industry as a whole.

The Writers Guild of America as we know it today came into being in the mid ’50s, not long after the advent of television. In fact, the loophole by which writers are allowed to unionize at all is directly related to one of the sticking points in the current detente: the payment of residuals for the reuse of a writer’s work. When a writer writes a screenplay, their work is protected under copyright law and as such they are granted certain inalienable creative rights. This scenario presented a number of stumbling blocks to studios. For one thing, as copyright holders, writers would exercise complete control over all derivative works, including sequels. On top of that, their inalienable creative rights would grant writers complete creative control over the blueprint for what would eventually become the finished film.

Since the studios bear the brunt of production costs, they’d obviously want a bit more autonomy in the filmmaking process. A compromise was reached: writers would sell the authorship of their scripts to the studios, becoming employees on a work-for-hire basis. In exchange for giving up their authorship rights, writers would be compensated in the form of an up-front fee and ongoing residuals for reuse of the material. More importantly, now that they were classified as employees, the writers were allowed to join a labor union which could collectively bargain on their behalf and guarantee them a minimum payment for their work.

For the past half-century the Guild has been forced to fight tooth and nail to achieve even the smallest of gains for its membership. Among these hard-won privileges was the right to residual payments when television episodics were rerun or when movies were replayed on TV, as well as a comprehensive pension plan for WGA members.

The standard residual formula for writers was 2.5% During the 1985 contract negotiations, the AMPTP convinced writers to take massive cuts in their residual payments (in the ballpark of 80%) for the burgeoning markets of cable television and home video. The AMPTP said that the profitability of these new markets was negligible, and that the overhead cost of video cassette production and packaging was prohibitive. The WGA agreed to a mere 0.03% share of the profits in the home video market, and the situation has remained unchanged ever since.

Of the untold billions of dollars the studios have made as a result of the explosion of the DVD market, writers have pocketed an average of no more than 4 cents-per-DVD sold.

One item on the negotiating table is an increase of writer DVD residuals from 0.03% to 0.06%, amounting to 4 additional cents per DVD sold of a writer’s work. While that extra 4 cents-per-DVD wouldn’t mean much to the studios, it means the world to most working writers. Because of the “here today, gone tomorrow” paradigm of network television series and the dry spells between writing gigs for feature writers, as many as 49% of the WGA membership is unemployed at any given moment. Additionally, since the paydays for feature writers are so high on paper, they’re lumped in the highest tax bracket, despite the fact that very few working writers pull down that kind of money on any consistent basis. The big name showrunners and the top screenwriters won’t find themselves pinching too many pennies as a result of the strike, but for the younger, middle-class writers, residual checks are the only reason they’re able to pursue their chosen profession on a full time basis.

The other major sticking point in the current contract negotiations is the formula for New Media residuals. The term refers primarily to internet delivery but also includes cell phones and other such non-traditional modes of content delivery. The AMPTP has steadfastly maintained its position that the new media residual formula mirror that of the DVD contract, but the WGA doesn’t want a repeat of the disastrous 1985 compromise.

Reports vary wildly about the current profitability of new media: The studios claim there is no money in this market, but there can be little doubt that not only is there money to be made on the Internet, but that in the coming years it’s likely to supplant the DVD market entirely. Networks are already airing entire episodes of their prime time programming on their websites for “promotional” purposes. Even though these uncut episodes are aired with commercial breaks for which he studios sell advertising, the writers don’t see a penny of that revenue.

It’s hard to say who is to blame for the talks breaking down on the morning of Monday, November 5, 2007. At the eleventh hour, WGA president Patric Verrone announced the Guild had conceded their demand for increased DVD residuals. We know now this was part of a backchannel deal that had been made with representatives of the AMPTP, who reportedly promised the Guild that said compromise would be met with a similar conciliation on the AMPTP’s part regarding the New Media issue. When no solution to the New Media issue was forthcoming, the WGA indignantly retured the DVD residuals issue to said table. The AMPTP claims they were negotiating in good faith that morning — until they learned that the WGA East had already begun picketing. Due to the time difference, the contract expired three hours earlier on the East Coast. When the AMPTP heard that writers were already picketing in New York City, their negotiators stormed out.

On the weekend of November 3, the WGA posted 15 Los Angeles area picket locations: CBS Radford Studios, CBS Television City, Culver Studios, Disney Studios, Fox Studios, Hollywood Center Studios, NBC Burbank, Prospect Studios, Paramount Studios / Raleigh Studios Hollywood, Raleigh Studios Manhattan Beach, Sony Pictures Studios, Sunset Gower Studios, Universal Studios and Warner Bros Studios. The guild formally announced to its membership that each and every one of them were expected to attend one of two four-hour picketing shifts, five days a week, until the strike is resolved. The WGA further encouraged any and all non-guild members who supported the cause to show up to one of the 15 picket locations and join the fight, and it has been in that capacity that CBR News has hefted a “Writer’s Guild on Strike” sign in front of one of the major studios nearly every weekday since the strike began.

More than 3,000 writers peopled the 15 Los Angeles picket locations on the first day of the strike, donning their now familiar red WGA T-shirts (picketers who can’t get their hands on an official shirt are encouraged to wear red). Aside from literally impeding the comings and goings of studio personnel by marching back and forth in front of studio gates, striking writers encourage passing motorists to blare their horns in support of the cause. There have even been aggressive demonstrations to disrupt location shoots of shows that have yet to shut down production.

The first week of striking culminated with a WGA rally outside Fox Studios on Friday, Nov. 9. The massive protest drew 4,000 people, the largest mobilization in WGA history. Fox’s Avenue of the Stars was blocked off to accommodate the throngs of WGA supporters. Rage Against the Machine members Zach de la Rocha and Tom Morello warmed up the crowd by performing a number of pro-union songs before the scheduled speakers took the podium. In addition to speeches from WGA president Patric Verrone and Chief Negotiator David Young, the likes of “Family Guy’s” Seth MacFarlane and Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke out on behalf of the Guild. Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg also took the podium, pledging his support and that of the actors’ guild.

CBR News spotted on the picket lines directors Paul Haggis, Cameron Crowe, “Battlestar Galactica” showrunner Ronald D. Moore, and actors Ron Rifkin, Jason Bateman, Walton Goggins and Rainn Wilson. Joss Whedon was also in attendance, despite being “sick as a dog.””Lost” writer Brian K. Vaughan was one week into his “strike beard,” which he vowed not to shave until a deal was reached.

Despite the enormity of the Fox rally, most media outlets deemed it less than front page news. It’s fair to say that strike news in general has been under-reported by the major media organizations, and there’s been no dearth of coverage with a decidedly pro-AMPTP slant. However, the lack of unbiased strike reporting spotlights an undeniable fact: many of the news networks are owned by the parent companies of the studios the WGA is striking against.

Daily Variety, one of the entertainment industry’s premier trade papers, has been among the worst offenders when it comes to objective coverage of the strike. The trades’ slanted coverage has prompted writers like “Ugly Betty’s” Bill Wrubel to cancel his subscriptions and chant “Variety and the [Hollywood] Reporter stink. We get our news from Nikki Finke!” Finke is an LA Weekly columnist who’s been covering the strike from the beginning on her website, endeavoring all the while to provide a neutral commentary on events as they develop. Hers is perhaps the most read blog in the entertainment industry at the present time.

After the rally at Fox Studios, theme pickets became the order of the day. Monday, November 12 was Family Strike Day at Fox Studios, where family members young and old walked the line with their scribe relations.

Star aplenty joined the picketers at Universal Studios on the 13th for Bring a Star to Picket With You day: Ben Stiller, Seth Green, Sarah Silverman, Zach Braff and Lisa Kudrow, just to name a few. “It’s so crazy ridiculous,” Silverman said. “All the writers want is a small percentage of the money that the producers are making on the things that they’re writing. They’re getting zero.”

SAG support of the WGA during this strike has been refreshingly unwavering. Jason Bateman found a creative loophole in the SAG no-strike clause: the actor, who is making the rounds promoting Fox’s “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” cancelled all scheduled appearances on striked talk shows. Additionally, high-profile actors are showing their solidarity in a series of internet video spots called Speechless Without Writers.

On Thursday, November 15, writers and staff members of “Ugly Betty” picketed en masse at Raleigh Studios for Gay Gate, along with supporters of the LGBT community.

Friday, November 16 was Fan Day at Universal Studios, where fans of shows like “Battelstar Galacitca,” “Desperate Housewives” and “CSI” were encouraged to picket alongside the writers of their favorites shows. Attendees of a local “Battlestar Galactica” convention joined showrunner Ronald D. Moore at Universal’s main gate, along with an estimated 2,500 other picketers.

Fans and showrunners who failed to recognize the subtle delineation between the public city sidewalks and the private studio lawns were escorted back to the pavement by Universal security guards. This was endemic of efforts to discourage picketers, and such things have been happening all over town since the strike began. Responding to noise complaints made by studio executives, police officers at some gates have written tickets to passing motorists blaring their horns in support of the picketing writers. And many a hapless writer has been cited for loitering in a crosswalk after marching back and forth in front of studio gates — although this can be a safety issue: Tom Johnson, head writer for “Talkshow with Spike Feresten,” reportedly suffered a broken leg in a strike-related accident.

Fans, too, have stepped up in a big way since the writers put their pencils down. An online petition with nearly 60,000 signatures, a campaign to mail hundreds of sharpened pencils to the AMPTP in support of the writers, and a plan to inundate the major studio heads with phone calls are just a few of the ways fans are supporting the writers of their favorite shows.

During his speech at the Fox Studios rally, Seth MacFarlane lamented that all of the assistants working at “Family Guy” had been let go as a result of the strike. After losing his job, MacFarlane’s former writing assistant Andrew Goldberg spearheaded an “Assistants Walk the Line with the WGA” event outside Fox on Monday the 19th. Debbie Ezer and Kate Burns, formerly assistants on CBS’ “Shark,” set up a complimentary lemonade stand outside Fox for the benefit of their fellow picketers, accepting “non-negotiable” 8-cent donations from those who felt so inclined.

Showrunners were out in force to support their below-the-line brethren, including Matt Groening, Joss Whedon and Tim Kring. Assistants and other below-the-line employees are the first to lose their jobs when production shuts down. Visit www.getbackinthatroom.blogspot.com for a growing list of below-the-liners who now find themselves out of work.

Ben Edlund, daughter Ezra and CBR’s Emmett Furey

On Tuesday, November 20, police blocked off Hollywood Blvd. from Ivar to Highland for a WGA solidarity march. The streets were literally overflowing with WGA supporters, and not just from SAG and the Directors’ Guild: Teamsters, janitors, nurses and longshoremen were just a few of the fellow labor unions that showed up wearing the WGA red. The event kicked off at Hollywood and Ivar with a performance by Alicia Keyes, followed by a march down Hollywood Blvd. to a rally outide the Mann Chinese Theater, where screenwriter Akiva Goldsman “Batman & Robin,” “The Da Vinci Code”) actress Sandra Oh and WGA negotiation committee Chairman John F. Bowman addressed the teeming masses. All along the way, local restaurants offered discounts for hungry marchers and residents shouted their support from their apartment windows. A homeless man could be overheard saying to no one in particular, “Go, writers! The actors wouldn’t have anything to say if it wasn’t for y’all!”

On the march from Ivar to Highland, I came across comedians Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn, “Heroes” stars Ali Larter and Masi Oka, as well as writers Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughan. “The Tick” creator Ben Edlund’s sign depicted a certain WB mascot choking the life out of a writer, and mine was a drawing of Edlund’s The Tick shouting “Honk if you love justice!”

The Hollywood Blvd. march was the last picket event prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. Spirits were high, not just on account of the tremendous outpouring of support, but also because news had leaked out that talks between the WGA and AMPTP were scheduled to resume on November 26. According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, Creative Artists Agency (one of the largest talent agencies in America) partner Bryan Lourd hosted a secret meeting between WGA reps Patric Verrone and Dave Young and AMPTP members Bob Iger (Disney) and Peter Cherin (Fox). The meeting came about as a result of two weeks of backchannel dealing by key partners from Hollywood’s five major talent agencies (CAA, William Morris, Endeavor, UTA and ICM). Lourd was selected to mediate the tete a tete due to his close ties to both sides. Inflammatory public statements made by both sides contributed to the deterioration of talks at the beginning of November, so the WGA and AMPTP are expected to maintain media silence now that talks have resumed, but an inside source of Nikki Finke’s says a resolution could come before the calendar year is out.

Ben Edlund’s strike sign

While the overwhelming majority of WGA membership is in favor of the strike, not everyone agreed on how best to carry it out. In the current TV landscape, the vast majority of showrunners are also writers, and, by extension, WGA members. It’s just as common to see writer-producer as well. People who work on TV shows in both a writing and producing capacity are known as “hyphenates,” and these writers face an unenviable dilemma: do they cross WGA picket lines to carry out their contractually obligated producer duties, or shirk those responsibilities to show solidarity to their fellow scribes and put pressure on the AMPTP?

In the early days of the strike, a great many hyphenates erred on the side of the WGA, but CBS-Paramount was quick to put its corporate foot down: On November 7, CBS showrunners received breach-of-contract letters from their employer, threatening legal action if thee failed to resume their producing duties. This prompted a group of 115 showrunners to hold a closed-door secret meeting at WGA headquarters to discuss the threat of legal reprisal they might all soon face. The assembled showrunners held a vote and agreed they would all resume their non-writing duties as soon as the AMPTP returned to the negotiating table in good faith. The showrunners further pledged to stand united with any of their colleagues who become the subject of legal action for refusing to cross WGA picket lines.

Local businesses support the WGA strike

In an e-mail sent to fellow WGA members after the showrunners meeting, “The Shield” showrunner Shawn Ryan pledged to forego his non-writing hyphenate duties until an equitable deal was reached, and he urged others to do the same. Ryan, also a member of the WGA negotiating committee, is steadfastly supporting the strike despite the fact that it could prevent him from taking part in the production of the “Shield” series finale. “If we all stop all work tomorrow, the impact of this strike will be felt much more quickly, much more acutely and it most likely will end sooner, putting our writers, our cast and our crews back to work sooner,” Ryan said. Similarly, “Scrubs” may be without a series finale altogether, as showrunner Bill Lawrence refused to write an emergency series finale when the studio saw the writing on the wall.

The strike has already forced shows like “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Bionic Woman” and “Battlestar Galactica” to shut down production, and as a result, Universal Media Studios has invoked the force majeure clause in their actor contracts. Force majeure is a common contract clause that frees both parties from liability or obligation when an event like a strike shuts down production on a project. In this case, the casts contracts have not been terminated, but merely suspended until such time as the strike is over, at which point the studio will decide whether or not to resume production. By not outright terminating their actors’ contracts, the studio is preventing cast members from seeking out other pay ing gigs. Force majeure is also a standard clause is writers contracts, and could ultimately be invoked by the studios to terminate the contracts of hyphenates who refuse to fulfill their non-writing duties.

“Heroes” star Ali Larter with some guy

Scripted television is not the only programming affected by the strike: talk shows are also hard hit. The great majority of late-night talk shows begin their telecast with scripted monologues. More often than not, talk show humor is topical, so the jokes are not written very far in advance. This meant that talk shows were among the first programs to shut down production once the strike was put into effect. A great deal of controversy arose when Ellen Degeneres, a member of both the WGA and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, continued to host her daytime talk show after honoring only a single day of the WGA strike. Degeneres’ actions prompted the WGA East to issue a statement proclaiming that “Ellen is not welcome in New York.” AFTRA rigorously defended Degeneres’ actions, but in light of the controversy, the host did cancel two scheduled New York tapings.

On the other side of the spectrum, David Letterman’s World Wide Pants, which independently produces both “The Late Show” and “The Late Late Show,” pledged to continue paying their non-writing staff on both shows through the end of the year, whether new shows are taped or not.

CBR’s Emmett Furey and Brian K. Vaughan

Even big-screen ventures are not immune to the effects of the strike. While many films go into production with somesemblance of a finished shooting script, on-set rewriters are a staple of movie-making and the strike renders such things impossible. Nevertheless, all films in the pipeline must move forward with their current scripts, or not at all. “Transformers 2,” the “Da Vinci Code” prequel “Angels and Demons” and Oliver Stone’s “Pinkville” are among the films that have been tabled indefinitely as a result of the strike.

One group the AMPTP will be forced to answer to, sooner rather than later, is the advertisers. While studios project that they have enough original programming to last them through February sweeps and enough new reality programming to fill out the remainder of the season, the fact remains that media groups buy ad time based not solely on the popularity of a show, but also on its demographic audience. Obviously, advertisers who buy time slots for first-run episodes of a show will not be satisfied if their ads are aired during reruns, so the time is fast approaching when media buyers will push to renegotiate their upfront package with the AMPTP members, or simply ask for their money back.

CBR’s Emmett Furey and Cameron Crowe

According to the Los Angeles Times, the cityc ould stand to lose more than $20 million a day if the strike extends into December. Despite the backlog of scripts, it’s only a matter of time before the 44 one-hour dramas and the 21 sitcoms that are shot in L.A. shut down production entirely, which could result in the loss of 15,000 jobs. An entire city waits with bated breath to hear the outcome of the closed-door negotiations going on even now. Hopefully the media blackout will see both sides worrying a little less about saving face and a lot more about the issues at hand, because make no mistake: the writers want to go back to work. But they also want what’s coming to them.

Now discuss this story in CBR’s Community forum.

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