Curtains for the guilds

Kevin Morris is founder and co-managing partner of an L.A. entertainment law firm. Glenn C. Altschuler is a professor of American studies at Cornell University.

Hollywood guilds resemble a camel assembled by a committee. They’re heterogeneous, with lots of moving parts. Their members have different interests and agendas. A few members get millions for each gig. Most of the rank and file won’t make a million if they live to be, well, 100.

Insiders have wondered for years when centrifugal force will pull them apart. With the collapse of the talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Assn. of Motion Picture and Television Producers, we can start to see the outlines of the demise of the system.

Here’s how the grim screenplay might read: The WGA and AMPTP break off negotiations on Friday, Dec. 7, 2007, a day that will live in infamy. The AMPTP reaches an agreement with the much less militant Directors Guild of America in January 2008.


Responding to the deal with the DGA, the WGA and the equally activist Screen Actors Guild band together and declare all-out war against the studios in February. The two guilds plan a massive unified labor action to bring Hollywood to its knees on June 30, 2008, the day the SAG contract expires.

Pressure mounts on WGA members to abandon their militant leaders. Major agents begin quietly telling their clients that WGA leaders are the problem. Writers, they advise, should go “financial core” so that false prophets don’t squander all hope of future profits. Financial core means you remain in the union but go back to work, forsaking your right to vote on, or participate in, union leadership, but still paying dues for nonpolitical activities and still receiving the benefits of your guild’s collective bargaining agreement. (Some soap opera writers have reportedly begun to make this move already.)

Defections occur among screenwriters, who support the strike less fervently than television writers, and among television show-runners, whose decisions to go financial core are said to have ended the last strike in 1988.

Meanwhile, the joint strike of the WGA and SAG commences on July 1, 2008. The business, already slowed to a crawl, shuts down completely. Picketing writers get 100,000 reinforcements from SAG. The studios, backstopped by the resources of GE and other conglomerates, are prepared to shrug it off.

After an initial period of “solidarity” with their fellow SAG members, movie stars and other celebrities feel pressure to peel off. They too go financial core. Self-interest trumps affection, affinity and affiliation between individuals from vastly different classes and groups.

By August 2008, the schism within the guilds is complete. The rank and file have gone to the mats in what they believe is a fundamental struggle for justice, equity and their fair share of Internet revenues. The well-known and the well-heeled are back at work, making movies and television shows.

The coalition of stars and artisans -- which has been both a tradition and increasingly a myth for decades -- evaporates. The vast majority of writers and actors remain locked in a labor movement, while directors, stars, screenwriters and show-runners function as the freelance independent contractors they truly are. The guild system goes the way of the studio system.

Some will say it’s the invisible hand of the market at work, with organizations collapsing and then realigning in more homogeneous groupings -- a “creative destruction” that has been a long time coming. Others will cry conspiracy, with the studios dividing and conquering. But after a while, as always happens, everyone will say: Wasn’t it inevitable, and isn’t it rational?

And it can happen here.