GUNFIGHT AT THE WRITERS GUILD CORRAL
Fade in: West Hollywood, March 18, 1985, evening.
Interior: Writers Guild of America, West, board room. A disorderly debate about contract negotiating strategy is in progress.
Cut to: WGAW board member Lila Garrett, who is shouting at an attorney retained by the WGAW.
“You are the most corrupt labor lawyer in America! You should be disbarred!”
Cut to: Close up of the attorney.
Cut to: John Gay, a member of the WGAW contract negotiating committee. Gay, shaking with anger and red in the face, rears up and comes at Garrett.
“Stop it, John!”
OTHER VOICES, pleading
“Hit her, John!”
It was a confrontation that might be straight from a screenplay. But instead of spinning off a screenwriter’s word processor, the scene--according to more than a dozen guild officials--is an example of the strife that engulfs the Writers Guild of America, West, the largest branch of the 9,000-member union of radio, TV and movie writers.
At the center of the storm are two strong women: Naomi Gurian and Lila Garrett. Gurian, recently fired as the WGAW’s executive director, clashed repeatedly with WGAW board member Garrett, a writer-producer with a documented knack for generating imbroglios. Now that Gurian is gone, her supporters are critical of Garrett, charging that Garrett has taken over control of the 19-member board. The result: contentiousness among the leadership at the WGAW is at an all-time high.
“The guild isn’t simply dying,” says David Rintels, a former guild president and consistent critic of Garrett. “It’s being devoured from within.”
Untrue, says board member Oliver Crawford, a Garrett supporter: “Lila is absolutely, unequivocally, a positive force.”
The WGA--which was ripped apart by the Communist-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1940s and ‘50s--is in even worse shape now, according to interviews with 35 present and former guild officials. The consensus is that the WGA is losing its traditional militancy and solidarity; that strong leadership is giving way to apathy and impotence--a far cry from the guild’s glory days.
Board members on both sides of the Garrett debate agree on one salient point: Some board members have reneged on their obligation to the membership by placing petty personality conflicts ahead of the union’s future.
The situation within the WGAW board room has become so consistently unpleasant--with shouts of “bitch,” “whore,” “moron"--that past leaders now refuse to serve, officials close to the nominating process add.
“For the first time in the history of the guild, people are saying ‘No!’ when you ask them to participate in the leadership,” says Ron Cohen, a former member of the WGAW board and negotiating committee.
The most deleterious effect of the guild’s turmoil can be found in last spring’s guild negotiations with movie and TV producers and the two-week strike that followed. Because of a breakdown of leadership, the WGA failed to capitalize on what probably was an unprecedented opportunity to substantially improve its contract.
The way the WGA interpreted its contract with the producers before the 1985 negotiations began, it was convinced that millions of royalty dollars due writers from the sale of videocassettes were being withheld.
Says Gurian of the producers’ payments to writers: “It was the greatest scam in recent Hollywood history.” WGAW board President Ernest Lehman told his membership that it was “an outrage beyond belief.”
The way the producers read the contract, however, they were abiding by it--and even overpaying the writers.
In an attempt to recover the royalties allegedly owed its members, the WGA initiated a series of labor arbitrations against the producers, hoping for a decision that would establish a precedent that its interpretation of the contract was the correct one.
Before any progress could be made in the arbitrations, the WGA went out on strike against the producers, giving the guild an even stronger position. “For the first time,” says board member Stephen Lord, “the guild sat in the catbird seat with a weapon that scared the living hell out of management.”
Yet, surprisingly, the arbitrations were dropped by the WGA even as its strike was crippling TV production in Hollywood.
Why? The guild, at a time when it had gained an advantage over the producers, lost control over its own membership. Guild leaders--who make their livings communicating to millions of moviegoers and TV-watchers--seemed unable to convince their increasingly fractious members that the videocassette issue was crucial to their future. A strong faction within the WGA was more interested in going back to work than in seeing the arbitrations continue.
In short, the arbitrations were dropped to unify the guild. But just a few weeks later, the guild was split again: Gurian, widely described as a “brilliant” executive director, was fired in a 10 to 9 vote, further exacerbating the wounds within the WGAW board.
This month, the WGAW will elect its president, vice president and secretary-treasurer and eight board members. Even the choice of candidates by the board-appointed nominating committees has rocked the guild’s hierarchy. Some committee members claim that the nominations were made to ensure the election of Garrett, who’s running for vice president, and her partisans.
Former executive director Gurian says that Garrett has told her that she views the presidency of the guild “as a stepping stone to higher office.” Garrett, a three-time Emmy winner, asked about Gurian’s comment, said she sees the presidency of the guild as “a heart attack.” Asked if that meant she would never run for the WGA presidency, Garrett said, “No.”
FLASH BACK TO: “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”
It began as an inconsequential 1981 movie but it would become the key to a multimillion-dollar misunderstanding.
During a routine 1983 review of royalties paid on the film’s videocassette sales, Maureen Holden, the WGA’s administrator of residuals, made what she considered a startling discovery: Screenwriter Bob Bonney apparently was being grossly underpaid on his share of the film’s royalties. Bonney was being paid 20 cents per cassette, but Holden contended that Bonney should have been paid a dollar, according to her reading of the WGA contract.
Holden took her findings to executive director Gurian. Gurian says she was shocked, even more so when a WGA investigation determined that Bonney’s alleged underpayment appeared to be the rule, not an exception. “The industry was cheating the writers, I believed,” Gurian said. “Every studio was paying the writers one-fifth of what they were owed on videos. And if the studios were doing it to the writers, they were doing it to every other talent union in town.”
The WGA believed the contract called for writers to be paid a royalty based on 100% of a cassette’s wholesale price; the producers believed the royalty was to be based on roughly 20% of the wholesale price.
If the WGA was correct in its appraisal, the implications were tremendous. Videocassettes had become the boom entertainment market of the 1980s. This year, approximately 50 million pre-recorded videocassettes (a majority authored by WGA members) are expected to generate wholesale revenues of $1.9 billion, according to the Electronic Industries Assn.
And since the WGA’s videocassette contract language--established in 1973--is widely used in the entertainment industry, a misinterpretation of the language could also involve thousands of actors and directors and, thus, huge sums of money.
Gurian, noting that even “stars” like Steven Spielberg might have been short-changed, says the movie industry has underpaid its workers $800 million in videocassette royalties since 1973. The Wall Street Journal put the figure at $200 million--though an attorney for the producers called that figure “overstated.”
In April, 1984, the WGA initiated 51 labor arbitrations against the 17 largest film companies seeking to recoup the alleged underpayments to writers. The first of these arbitrations to be heard--in which the WGA sought about $8 million from Paramount Pictures--did not begin in earnest until 11 months later, in March, 1985. The WGA claimed foul, saying the producers were stalling over the matter of who would arbitrate. Meanwhile, the WGA’s contract with the producers expired.
WGA attorney Brian Walton (now the guild’s new executive director, replacing Gurian) called the producers’ tactics “cold-bloodedly Machiavellian in the extreme.”
Cold-blooded or not, the tactics were effective. Gurian says she always wanted the arbitrations to be separate from contract negotiations. But with the expiration of the contract, the producers had the chance to move the videocassette issue out of arbitration and onto the bargaining table, where the producers (represented in negotiations by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers) had far more clout and control.
Several WGA negotiators did not see this as cause for panic. They believed that producers would still be willing to make major contract concessions if the guild agreed to drop the arbitrations. The producers, these guild negotiators thought, could not afford to gamble on an arbitrator deciding such a crucial issue. But the producers, according to a source, weren’t worried.
In exchange for dropping the arbitrations, the WGA sought to win a possessive credit for its writers. Under a possessive credit, future films would not be billed, say, as “Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest” but as “Ernest Lehman’s North by Northwest.” Since screen and advertising credits are a writer’s primary avenue for recognition, obtaining the possessive credit would be seen as a negotiating triumph.
At the least, negotiators thought, the WGA could drop the arbitrations in return for an increase in a writer’s creative control over his work, a raise in minimum salaries and an improvement in affirmative-action guidelines.
On the surface, the WGA bargaining position looked formidable. In addition to the videocassette arbitrations, the WGA was on strike, which was stopping production on some of TV’s most highly rated series, including NBC’s “The Cosby Show,” and “Hill Street Blues.” There was also speculation that daytime soap operas would run out of scripts if the strike continued.
Nevertheless, on March 7, in the middle of a warm, muggy night in a building with broken air conditioning, Gurian took the advice of some concerned senior guild officials and persuaded a doubting WGA negotiating committee to drop the arbitrations and settle quickly with the producers.
And what the WGA get in return for its heralded bargaining chip? If you’re chief WGA negotiator Gurian, “the best possible contract under the circumstances.” If you’re WGA member Greg O’Neill, on the other hand, it was “little more than a joke.”
“In terms of money,” says negotiating committee co-chairman Del Reisman, “I think we got far less than what we should have gotten.”
What, then, prompted WGA negotiators to accept a deal that they knew was, for the most part, second-rate and which capitulated on the videocassette question, accepting the producers’ reading of the contract language and terminating the arbitration threat?
“It sounds so melodramatic,” Reisman says, “but I think we had to save the guild. It appeared that circumstances were very favorable to the guild because of the arbitrations. But on examining it closely, in terms of the condition of the membership, it was not that way at all.”
The condition of the membership, as Reisman puts it, was “revolutionary” and “destructive.” In other words, sharply divided--only 60% of the membership had voted to go on strike and that majority seemed to be slipping as the strike wore on.
Indeed, at the time there was a growing faction within the guild urging its negotiators to stop the strike and make a deal, and a number of writers were threatening to go back to work during the strike.
The loudest criticism of the strike came from a well-organized WGA contingent calling itself the Union Blues, which urged negotiators to bring back a deal quickly, regardless of the terms.
In addition to the Union Blues, there also were strong indications that members of the smaller East Coast branch of the WGA would cross picket lines.
So at a dinner in the middle of the March 7 negotiating session four guild negotiators told Gurian that the very future of the WGA--with its 52-year record of militancy and sacrifice and ground-breaking contracts--was in jeopardy.
A story about Robert Riskin, the Academy Award-winning writer of a number of films directed by Frank Capra (“It Happened One Night,” “Lost Horizon”), speaks loudly to the frustrations of screenwriting.
Capra, as the story has it, would talk at length about these films having a “Capra touch,” seldom mentioning Riskin’s contributions. Riskin, his patience finally exhausted by what he saw as Capra’s self-serving claims, brought a “screenplay” of 120 blank pages to Capra and said, “Here, Frank, put a few of the famous Capra touches on this!”
One of the first board members of the Screen Writers Guild, which was the progenitor of the WGA, Riskin was familiar with the problems of Hollywood writers. When the guild was born in 1933, the majority of screenwriters enjoyed few protections. Their work went uncredited (or was vagariously credited to someone who had nothing to do with it). They were often paid less than their secretaries, and they were subject to studio blacklisting long before blacklists became fashionable.
Weak, perhaps, as individuals, the screenwriters as a group found they carried strength. Although striking writers could not close down Hollywood production overnight, the industry needed their output. It still does. No scripts, no shows. Says former board member Ron Cohen of the situation today, “Most of television is drivel. But it takes professional writers to write that drivel.”
When the untried Screen Writers Guild went on strike in 1941, it won the foundation for all future writers’ contracts with producers, including the right to determine screen credits and minimum salaries.
As TV grew, the Screen Writers Guild became, in 1954, the Writers Guild of America. The WGA won television residuals in a five-month strike in 1960 and a share of pay-TV revenues in a 13-week strike in 1981.
There are indications, however, that the 1981 strike might have been a Pyrrhic victory. The pay-TV market has yet to yield its much-promised bounty, and the 1981 strike also marked the emergence of WGA dissident and future Union Blues leader Lionel Chetwynd, who would return to bedevil guild negotiators in 1985.
In 1958, WGA membership was 875. Today, it’s more than 10 times that. Yet during this time, the number of writing jobs has hardly grown. Of West Coast members with credits in the last 10 years, 80% earn less than $5,000 a year writing.
That’s what makes the guild inherently troubled. The majority of today’s WGA members cannot and do not write for their livelihood.
Says former guild president Christopher Knopf, “There are a lot of writers who have been making a living for many years, but who are not making one now, and may never again. They’ve got a right to be terrified and very angry. But it’s not the guild’s fault.”
The situation promises to worsen before it improves. Film schools across the country continue to produce aspiring screenwriters at a frantic pace, and every other housewife, waiter, oil company executive and plumber now seems to be working on a screenplay.
The thousands of unemployed--and even some struggling working members--have come to resent their guild. Many throw out guild mail (unless it’s stamped “residual check enclosed”), don’t vote in WGA elections or skip membership meetings. Some of those who attend meetings attack guild leaders incessantly, blaming the WGA for not providing them with jobs, which the guild contends is impossible for it to do.
On top of the problems inherent in the WGA, unions in the 1980s are regressing, losing appeal and, as in the case of the air traffic controllers, losing bargaining power. During the last five years, U.S. labor unions have lost 2.6 million members.
“There is a mood of selfishness afloat in the world and I don’t think the writers have escaped it,” Knopf says. “There’s a lot of ‘me first and forget the next guy.’ God, I remember when there was an unwritten rule that the haves fought for the have-nots. But I don’t sense that anymore today. I sense that everybody tends to look at it as, ‘What’s in it for me? And if it’s not for me, screw you!’ ”
Lionel Chetwynd, by his own admission one of the highest-paid writers in the country, claims to represent the “working membership” and insists that the WGA leadership doesn’t.
The obstreperous Chetwynd does have a unifying influence. As split as guild leaders are, they are mostly united in attacking him. Chetwynd, they say, is quick to enjoy all guild benefits that previous strikes and sacrifices have won, but refuses to support efforts to win new, improved benefits for future guild members. Others, Gurian included, call him a union buster.
“I really understand what a writers’ strike does,” says Chetwynd. “It basically kills all the people coming up. The established people do very well out of it. . . . This leadership has shown itself consistently frivolous in its use of the strike action.”
Former WGAW president Rintels disagrees: “It’s the younger writers that we’re trying to protect.”
Chetwynd and Union Blues co-organizer Edward Anhalt, who this month is running for guild president, were able to attract a boisterous faction critical of the WGA’s 1985 strike. Their position was simple: Urge the negotiators to bring back a deal equal to the 1984 Directors Guild of America contract with producers (which accepted the producers’ reading of the videocassette-royalty language) and abandon the WGA’s ongoing strike.
But the WGA negotiators thought they could extract a far better deal from the producers than the DGA by using the arbitration threat as a bargaining chip. Yet, because they were unable to adequately communicate this negotiating strategy to their own rank and file, the rank and file began to side with the Union Blues, which, at least, was speaking with a clear voice. The opposite was true of guild leadership, which didn’t seem to know what it was doing: President Lehman stood before the membership at a March 11 meeting and called management’s offer cause for “celebration.” Later that same evening, after it became apparent that even some guild negotiators thought the settlement was an outrage, Lehman stunned the membership when he declared the negotiated settlement an embarrassment that he would no longer support.
All the while, writers of soap operas in the East Coast branch of the WGA were threatening to cross picket lines. So, between the East Coast writers and the Union Blues, a strong guild bargaining position was undermined, and WGA membership voted overwhelmingly on March 18 to approve what some guild negotiators still label a “disaster.”
“The crazies are starting to take over the asylum.”
That’s how board member Noreen Stone characterizes the screaming and name-calling that, she says, passes for a board meeting at the WGAW these days.
Interviews with a number of current and past board members confirm her description: The WGAW board room is a snake pit of personal attacks and innuendo, self-aggrandizing politicking and demagoguery. Even the most trivial of agenda items, these board members say, bog down in hate-filled quarrels. Garrett’s supporters say that Gurian was the source of the hostility, and that the board has taken a turn for the better now that she’s gone.
Yet even when Gurian was still employed by the guild, a number of reported clashes did not involve her directly:
One board member says that Garrett called her “a bitch” and “a whore” at a board meeting. Garrett denies it, saying she called the board member an “oil slick.”
Guild Vice President Irma Kalish says that Garrett has called her a “moron” and a “little wimp” in front of the board. Garrett denies it.
Bill Froug, Hindi Brooks, Ron Cohen and Allan Burns all refused to run for reelection to the board because, they say, they couldn’t stand the personal attacks. For similar reasons, Al Levitt resigned in the middle of a board meeting. But Levitt and Cohen will come out of board retirement and run this month.
More than 20 veteran guild officials were asked to run for president in the 1983 elections. All refused and, according to nominating committee member Ron Cohen, many cited Garrett’s conduct as the reason.
The attorney attacked by Garrett at the beginning of this article is Paul Selvin, whom the WGA has retained for more than 20 years. Garrett’s outburst was prompted when she disagreed with Selvin on a legal question. Garrett admitted she was overwrought at the time, and Shirley Hufstedler, a prominent Los Angeles attorney, says, “I cannot imagine that there can be any factual foundation” for Garrett’s charges. Former WGAW president Knopf labels Garrett’s charge “absurd. . . . He’s one of the most totally honest attorneys I’ve ever encountered in all my life.”
The situation has grown so unpleasant that guild president Ernest Lehman wrote the following (to be inserted in the board minutes, though it never appeared):
“If any single member . . . feel(s) that the guild has been letting them down in recent years, perhaps it would be wise for them to consider the possibility that savage internal warfare, personal animosities, internecine intrigue by day, by night and by telephone, maneuverings for power, determination to overthrow the real or fancied enemy within the Guild . . . may be taking up the time, the thought, the energy, the motivation, the direction, the concentration, the effectiveness , of many of those . . . delegated to solve the problems . . . of writers.”
What startled many about executive director Gurian’s firing in April was the strong support that she enjoyed among the membership and her staff. At the conclusion of the March 18 membership meeting, for example, Gurian was given a standing ovation for her performance in negotiations.
Lehman even told Gurian, she says, that she had his full support. But 10 days later, he opened a board meeting by calling for her ouster and voted against her in the 10-9 vote.
Gurian’s supporters--and Gurian herself--say that she was the victim of a personal vendetta on the part of Garrett and others, that the board meeting in which she was fired was a “star chamber” and a “lynching.” Some of those present at that meeting say that Gurian’s three-year performance as executive director was ignored, and that the bulk of the discussion focused on her personality.
Says former board member Levitt, “She’s one of the best things that ever happened to the WGA. (Her firing) was a very bad mistake.”
Those who voted against Gurian, including board members Garrett, Steve Shagan, Stephen Lord and Oliver Crawford, say she tried to consolidate power, participated in and accepted advice from “a shadow government” and a “cabal” (composed in part, they say, of present and former board members), ignored the membership and mishandled important guild business. Gurian was not, this group says, the object of a personal vendetta. Rather, she was not an effective leader. “As her power grew, she became manipulative to the point of absurdity,” Garrett says.
When the 10-9 vote on Gurian was counted, Garrett--according to board members Stone, Reisman and Frank Tarloff--jumped up and yelled enthusiastically, “I have been waiting years for this moment!”
CUT TO PRESENT: A beachfront house in Malibu on a warm and windy day. Lila Garrett is sitting on the deck, just above the crashing waves, discussing this description of her reaction to the vote that ousted Gurian.
“I never said it . . . but it’s a very sweet victory.”
Fade to black:
Cut to: Credits.