Hollywood Drama

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When Hollywood's professional storytellers voted approval of their new contract Sunday, ending the longest strike in Hollywood film making history, many screenwriters were not even sure how the settlement came about.

Some credited the efforts of federal mediators. Others lauded the Writers Guild of America negotiating committee that spent hours in marathon negotiating sessions with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Still others pointed to entertainment lawyer Ken Ziffren, whose widely reported "shuttle diplomacy" between Guild and Alliance leaders one week ago helped end a crucial--and, as it turned out, final--impasse on a new contract.

But, in Hollywood's own true cloak-and-dagger tradition, Byzantine politics and behind-the-scenes drama were being played out to the end. Enough plot twists, suspense elements and high-concept characters emerged in the final days of the strike to satisfy the most demanding story editor.

The last skirmish began in late July with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service's insistence that the sides meet in a final effort to break an impasse that had begun with the walkout March 7. Here's how the battle played out.

Thursday, July 21

On the eve of federally mediated talks, chief Writers Guild negotiator Brian Walton told reporters that J. Nicholas Counter III, chief negotiator for the Alliance, had warned him in a telephone conversation to expect nothing from the sessions.

The exchange appeared to be a low point in relations between the two individuals.

Counter, Walton claimed, had said the strike would now have to be settled "by forces outside the collective bargaining process"--a statement so severe that Walton said he was contemplating a National Labor Relations Board charge against companies for bad-faith bargaining.

Counter called the claim a lie.

One of the studio chiefs that afternoon contended that Counter's call had been well-intentioned, and was provoked by word that the union was banking on several peace initiatives that were advanced by informal intermediaries, but didn't have any actual backing from the producers. By the executive's account, this was supposed to keep Walton from being decoyed by several unauthorized peace initiatives.

Saturday, July 23

After negotiations began, tempers heated when the Associated Press reported, according to messages on the Guild's computerized bulletin board, that federal mediator Floyd Wood was threatening in the closed-door sessions to levy fines against the producers for stonewalling.

The mediator was sufficiently incensed by the report to call individual reporters, despite the news blackout, and assure them that both sides were bargaining hard in the session.

But, according to one company chief, Walton's stonewalling charges became material in shaping Counter's instructions for the session. Counter was warned, he said, that Walton's strategy would be to embarrass the producers publicly by making them appear to be unyielding villains.

So Counter was told not to leave the sessions without giving the writers something. "You give them one more inch. Just an inch. But give them that," the executive recalled of the strategy.

Friday, July 29

The final mediated meeting was convened at 4 p.m. after a week of bitterness. During mass picketing earlier in the week one writer sported a T-shirt calling producers "money-grubbing scum." Meanwhile, Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller challenged Guild leaders to a televised debate. He offered to give the show "however many hours are necessary" on Fox-owned KTTV, and to press fellow Los Angeles station owners such as Disney to simulcast the debate. Guild leaders declined.

The final "inch" from the producers turned out to be their agreement in principle to a writer-proposed deal on foreign residuals that would have allowed a 25% bonus residual on hit one-hour shows, but only if the programs had first made at least $400,000 in the domestic syndication market.

But both sides bogged down again over the rate at which the new residual would accumulate. The producers said it would be calculated at 1.2% of their foreign revenues--a level that meant a show would have to earn an immense $366,000 abroad before it ever yielded an extra dollar to writers.

The writers had begun by asking that the percentage be 2%--pushing the payoff point to a more promising $220,000. By Friday night, the writers came down to 1.7%, but the companies--apparently feeling they had already given their inch--didn't budge.

Late that night, Walton produced a handwritten peace plan that purported to be the union's last-ditch effort. It outlined a five-year contract that would have included a cost-of-living adjustment.

Counter, by the Guild's count, considered the offer for 8 minutes before flatly rejecting it, and the mediator declared the sessions adjourned.

Saturday, July 30

On the Guild's hot line, Walton called the break a terror tactic, and said he expected the mediator to be in touch. Meanwhile, MCA President Sidney Sheinberg--chairman of the Alliance's core companies--appeared to cut off any such effort in advance.

"The game is now over. Everyone's going to proceed in his own best interests," Sheinberg told a reporter on Saturday night.

Barely 24 hours later, contact between writers and producers would, in fact, resume. But only after the Guild weathered what appears to have been a weekend crisis of confidence.

One member of the Guild's board, on Saturday night, told a reporter that the producers' decision to break off seemed calculated to inflict damage on the union.

"What I'm afraid is happening is that there's a sense of punishment setting in (against us)," the board member said.

Sunday, July 31

At Guild Headquarters

How deep the crisis ran is difficult to know. It is clear, however, that the break-off triggered a flood of calls by members to Guild headquarters.

On a new hot line message recorded at 7:50 p.m. the next day, Walton acknowledged having received "a large number of sincere and very valid questions" about the break-off. In a later interview, he said the calls had been mixed, including many from members urging continued firmness--but also many calling for a rapid end to the strike.

Some Guild members immediately laid the groundwork for a petition drive to force a membership meeting and a vote on the producers' latest offer--but soon called it off on Walton's assurance that things were still moving. According to one Guild negotiator, many members of the Guild asked for a meeting and a vote. "The trend was, as long as you're talking, it's OK. If you break off, we want a vote," one Guild negotiator said of the membership's mood.

Meanwhile, the Writers Coalition, a group of 21 dissidents who had resisted the strike for months, were promising to convene on Monday to decide whether to resign from the Guild and go back to work.

In the face of that pressure, Guild negotiators met for 11 hours on Sunday.

According to Frank Pierson--a former Guild president who was brought in during the final weeks to help negotiate--the marathon meeting was involved and impassioned. Despite a belief that some Guild board members "would hang out cheerfully until Christmas" for better terms, a consensus apparently developed that Walton should seek immediate settlement, even if it meant accepting terms close to those the companies were describing in a memorandum handed out at a Sunday press conference, according to Pierson.

One story said that Walton was sent out with a 24-hour mandate to settle on any terms that he judged acceptable. But, Pierson said, "There was no 24-hour limit, or 36-hour limit. Brian went out having heard everybody express himself as to where the various limits were. The committee . . . said Godspeed."

Apparently working through TV writer-producer Gary David Goldberg and other members, the Guild asked entertainment attorney Ziffren to help reopen communications with the companies. Ziffren has declined to comment. Walton has said only that Ziffren had been occasionally involved throughout the strike.

Sunday, July 31

Sid Sheinberg's Living Room

A Sunday night session of studio chiefs took place sometime after 11 at the Beverly Hills home of MCA Inc. President Sidney Sheinberg.

Sheinberg had been designated co-chairman with Paramount's Frank Mancuso of a core committee of Alliance companies. But Mancuso was in Europe and, although he generally stayed in touch by phone, Sheinberg had authority to make some policy for the companies in his absence.

By one account, the meeting was an accident and coincidence that grew out of Sheinberg's casual conversations with Fox's Diller and Disney's Jeffrey Katzenberg earlier in the day. At one point, Sheinberg called Diller, whose house is just off nearby Coldwater Canyon, and said: "Nick is going to come over. You live around the block. Why don't you come?"

Ziffren--by now spearheading the Guild's efforts to reopen talks--called the chiefs at Sheinberg's home and argued that the bargainers for the two sides should get back together based on written proposals that had been initialed by Guild leaders.

Walton--who enjoys the drama of late-night sessions--seemed prepared to talk with Counter as early as that night.

But the executives were concerned that Walton would interpret any contact at this point as a sign of weakness on their part. "If we said we'd talk, we figured he'd go on the hot line and tell his members, 'We've got them on the run again,' " one of the chiefs later said.

So the chiefs told Ziffren they would "preclude" Counter from meeting with Walton unless the Guild met two conditions.

The writers would have to accept the producers' 1.2% figure on foreign residuals as absolute. And they would have to enter a basic cable agreement--even though, by now, Walton had concluded that writers could do better for the next several years by continuing to negotiate contracts for such shows case by case.

"If you can say 'yes,' we'll deliver Counter. If it's 'no,' then go away, because we have nothing to talk about," is how one of the chiefs remembers the producers' ultimatum.

Even so, one of the chiefs--whose account is disputed by two executives who attended the meeting, but not by a third--contends that the group privately concluded after Ziffren hung up that softer terms were possible if a settlement appeared genuinely imminent. In his words: "We looked at each other and said: OK, 1.2% is what we said. But what do we need?"

"We decided we needed 1.5%."

Monday, Aug. 1

The Sunday night session threatened to set off a Monday morning split among the executives.

By several accounts, Warner Bros. Chairman Bob Daly--a moderate force in the Alliance--was deeply angered when he learned of the meeting early in the day from Goldberg, who continued to work with Ziffren on the peace initiative.

Daly has declined to discuss his reaction other than to say, through a spokesman, that there was a "difference in priorities, but no serious rift among the executives."

Still, several top studio executives say that Daly called Diller, Sheinberg and Katzenberg with bitter objections to the way they had handled what appeared to have shaped up as a Sunday summit.

By two accounts, Daly was angered about the "format" of the session. He told at least one executive among the three that he was perfectly willing to let Sheinberg deal for the group. But he considered it a violation of protocol for the MCA chief to have convened advisers without bringing in someone to speak for the Alliance's more moderate wing.

"He was right about that," concedes one of the chiefs. As it happened, Daly was at a nearby beach house, but wasn't outside of Los Angeles.

More seriously, Daly objected to the other chiefs' insistence about forcing the Guild to take a cable agreement that had previously been characterized as a boon for the writers.

"It's embarrassing," he told one of the executives. "I stood there and told them how good this was for them. Now you mean to tell me you won't let them give it back to you?"

The morning was particularly tender for the producers because it touched on hard feelings left over from the directors' contract negotiations a year earlier. "Warner is always a difficulty on these issues. They say one thing, and then go bottom-fishing (for easier solutions)," one studio chief complained of the Monday confrontation.

While the CEOs tangled, Goldberg--still fishing for a moderating force, apparently--reached Paramount's Mancuso in London. The two are friends and have worked closely together on "Family Ties," a Paramount TV production that has earned the writer-producer millions of dollars.

Goldberg pressed Mancuso toward a compromise at 1.5%. The Paramount chief listened sympathetically, but refused to budge from the producers' line.

Meanwhile, the Coalition was moving ahead with plans to set up a meeting room at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica and begin what one member called "Vietnam vet" style counseling of Guild members who wanted to leave the union by opting for court-sanctioned "financial core" status. This status allows members to give up active participation in a union and exempts them from strike discipline as long as they continue to pay dues. Rumors abounded that some WGA members had already "gone core" without waiting for the Coalition to act.

Walton, who had previously downplayed the role of the Coalition, called and said, 'You guys do whatever you think you should do, but because there are some human elements here, I think it would be a pity to take an irreparable step that might damage careers and personal lives. Why take that step in 24 hours when the thing may be settled in 36? I can make no guarantee. Do with that what you will.' "

The call triggered a rumor that the strike might end within 36 hours. "That night, the rumor was on every TV station," Walton said. "I was sitting at my girlfriend's house when I saw (KABC-TV reporter) Paul Dandridge saying on the evening news that it would be over in 36 hours. I called him up and told him I didn't say that. By then, it was on the Guild's computer bulletin board and in the next day's New York Times. The reporter didn't bother to check it with me."

By late evening, one emissary who worked closely with the Guild on Monday said he believed the strike was as good as over. But he couldn't yet tell which of three courses it would take. In his view:

(1) The Guild would go back to the table at 1.2% and do the best it could with the rest of the formula.

(2) Guild leaders would let members vote on existing company proposals.

(3) "The Guild just collapses," with a significant number of writers--even those not aligned with the Coalition--breaking ranks.

It remains impossible to know whether any meaningful number of writers would have left the Guild. The Alliance claimed on Monday to have had about 15 direct calls from people asserting that they were union members and asking how to get in touch with story editors at the studios before a bomb scare closed the building in mid-afternoon. As of Saturday, one top talent agent was privately predicting "a serious number" of defections, but he declined to put his name or that of his agency on any estimate. Ziffren himself had at least one writer-producer client who was straining to bolt--but the lawyer advised him on Monday to wait for 24 hours.

Unknown to the emissary, the company line, in a further complication, actually hardened on Monday as Diller, Sheinberg and other executives concluded that the 1.2% figure had what one executive called symbolic value and should indeed be absolute.

According to one of the chiefs, the hardening was partially triggered by a call to a studio by a New York Times reporter who knew of the Sunday night session. Some company representatives concluded that she could have learned of it only through Walton. Thinking that Walton had already begun leaking stories to depict their weakness, the chiefs supposedly "blew up," and privately decided to harden on the 1.2% figure.

Tuesday, Aug. 2

By Tuesday morning, the writers agreed to the 1.2% figure and to reaching a basic cable agreement.

Talks were set to resume at 4 p.m. under a supposed cloak of secrecy. But word quickly spread through Hollywood that a settlement was at hand, and calls began flooding into the agencies and newspapers.

By the time the session began, the studio chiefs seemed genuinely convinced that a settlement was imminent. Several were privately predicting that a deal would be done--but the Guild, in a hot line message recorded by Guild President George Kirgo, cautioned against falsely optimistic rumors that, he said, might be generated by producers to railroad writers into a bad settlement.

Initially, the companies believed the talks would involve five individuals at most and, in the words of one chief, would "probably by over by, I would imagine, around 6 o'clock."

In fact, the writers sent more than a dozen negotiators, including Ziffren. They met Counter and about three other company representatives at the Alliance's Sherman Oaks headquarters.

The session would last nearly 15 hours--and would yield certain small gains for the writers.

Unresolved issues concerning the re-acquisition of scripts were cleaned up, and the companies dropped a provision from the strike settlement letter that would have demanded amnesty from union discipline for anyone who worked for the producers during the strike.

True to their commitment, the writers came to terms on a basic cable agreement, with some modifications in their favor. They also accepted the 1.2% formula, but only after producers agreed to improve previously discussed terms, by allowing an alternative foreign residual system that writers could elect during the contract term if they found it advantageous. Under the alternative, producers would pay up to 130% of the current residual for successful shows, as long as writers agreed to take only 85% of the current residual for flops.

According to several top executives, the writers could have had more. Counter's instructions going into the session advised him--in extreme necessity--to drop basic cable agreement and to use a 90%-135% spread on the foreign residuals rather than lose the deal.

Apparently the union didn't recognize the strength of its hand going into the last session.

Wednesday, Aug. 3

On Wednesday afternoon, Walton showed up an hour late for formal presentation of the agreement at Alliance headquarters.

He was scheduled to meet with the Guild's negotiating committee for a review of the agreement at 1:30, and then proceed to a session with the federal mediator and company negotiators.

It was already 2:30 when he arrived at the building. As he turned the corner into the drive, he was wearing wraparound sunglasses, and leaned out the window of his cream-colored sports car as he talked on a cellular phone. The photographers and camera crews packing the drive scattered as he plowed through to the parking lot.

At 4:45 the accord was announced.

Staff writer Leonard Klady contributed to this article.

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