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Writing wrongs

HERE ARE SOME SUGGESTIONS for Patric Verrone on keeping professional screenwriters in line: Get a big dog; have lots of Friskies treats on hand; keep a powerful squirt gun close by to spray stragglers with.

Oops, our mistake. Those are suggestions for herding cats. When it comes to screenwriters, you might as well forget it.

Verrone is about to become the hardest-working writer in showbiz. He was elected by a wide margin Tuesday to run the Writers Guild of America, West, the union that represents screen and TV writers west of the Mississippi River (i.e., living in Los Angeles rather than New York). Verrone promises to improve relations with other unions, better organize writers in animation and reality TV and push harder to win concessions from studios on DVD revenues.

It’s an admirably ambitious plan, and it might be easier if goal No. 2 didn’t contradict goal No. 1. The Writers Guild has been trying to organize writers in animation and reality TV, but the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees thinks those writers fall under its purview. IATSE is fighting back by going after screenwriters covered by the WGA.

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When it isn’t feuding with IATSE, the western division of the guild is quarreling with its counterparts in the East. In the latest break between the two deeply dysfunctional siblings, they are suing each other over $1 million a year in dues and service fees that the western guild claims it is owed by the Writers Guild of America, East. The two unions have convoluted rules for splitting members and dues -- rules that are a constant source of tension, begging the question of why TV and screenwriters need two geographically distinct unions to begin with. They don’t, but don’t expect them to get together anytime soon.

As if these disputes weren’t sufficient, the western branch is also split by noisy disputes among its own members. In July, its board voted to give a service award to former President Victoria Riskin. It was a controversial decision because Riskin had been forced to step down in early 2004 after it was learned that she hadn’t worked enough to qualify for active membership. After a bitter internal dispute, the board took away Riskin’s award last month.

The mess further alienated writers already upset by the union’s failure to wrest concessions on DVD residuals from studios last year. “How many off-ramps from serious matters can this membership survive?” asked “M*A*S*H” creator Larry Gelbart in a quote from Daily Variety.

The writers’ biggest problem may be simply that the guild is run by fellow writers. If the creative, often neurotic people who produce entertainment for a living were good at negotiation -- and the compromise, salesmanship and brinkmanship it requires -- they wouldn’t have to hire agents to do it for them.

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