Hollywood's film and TV writers are ready to trade their pens for picket signs if they can't reach a deal with their employers by Halloween.
Members of the Writers Guild of America voted by an overwhelming margin to authorize their leaders to call a strike if they can't negotiate a three-year contract with the major studios to replace one that expires Oct. 31. Of 5,507 members who voted, 90% favored granting a strike authorization. Guild officials said the turnout was a record for the union, which has nearly 12,000 members.
"Writers do not want a strike, but they are resolute and prepared to take strong, united action to defend our interest," said Patric M. Verrone, the guild's president. "What we must have is a contract that gives us the ability to keep up with the financial success of this ever-expanding global industry."
The vote -- sought by guild leaders to give them more leverage in negotiations that have been stymied by deep differences -- marked the first time writers have voted on such an authorization since 1988. That vote paved the way for a 22-week strike that cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million.
The vote doesn't mean there will be an immediate strike, but it gives guild leaders the option of calling one sometime after the expiration of the contract.
Few were surprised by the results announced Friday, given that contract talks have been highly contentious and both sides have spent months preparing for a showdown. Seeking to defuse tensions, the major studios on Tuesday withdrew a proposed revamping of the decades-old residuals payment system, removing a major stumbling block to negotiations.
But that decision came too late to have much effect on the vote because most guild members had already cast their ballots. Studios have held the line on the union's other key demands, such as granting residuals for shows streamed over the Web free and giving writers a bigger cut of home video sales.
"A strike authorization vote is a pro forma tactic used by every union in the country, and usually the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of a strike," said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
"We are not surprised with the outcome of this vote, given reports of how this election was conducted. Our focus is on negotiating a reasonable agreement with the WGA."
Writers have rallied behind a theme that might best be summed up by the Who's hit song "Won't Get Fooled Again." Writers maintain they were shortchanged years ago when they agreed to a discounted pay formula for home video sales, only to see that business take off. And they're determined not to make the same mistake again as the digital revolution upends the entertainment industry.
"The guild made a bad deal 20 years ago and they've been angry ever since and they don't want to do it again," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment industry attorney with TroyGould in Los Angeles and a former associate counsel for the Writers Guild. "That's why we're seeing a line drawn in the sand."
For their part, the studios maintain that DVD sales are needed to offset rising marketing and production costs, and they contend that it's too early to lock into pay formulas for shows distributed online because technologies are rapidly changing and they're still grappling with uncertain business models.
Although the vote drew wide support from writers, one of the guild's more prominent members blasted the union's handling of the ballots.
Writing on his blog Thursday night, Craig Mazin, whose credits include the films "Scary Movie 4" and the upcoming "Superhero!" accused the guild of breaking from a long-standing practice of conducting elections through secret ballot. Mazin wrote that a union "strike captain" called him, saying she had been informed by the guild that Mazin had not voted, and she urged him to do so.
"I'm disgusted with guild leadership for daring to be so bold, and for abandoning such an obvious and necessary prerequisite for a fair and decent democratic referendum," he wrote.
A guild spokesman said, "Members were encouraged to vote, but how they voted was completely secret."
Until recently, conventional wisdom was that the guild would not walk out immediately but would work without a contract until early next year, to line up its negotiations with the more powerful Screen Actors Guild, whose contract expires June 30. SAG representatives have been sitting on the sidelines of the writers' talks, and both unions have been closely aligned on a number of issues, especially concerns about Internet pay. As is often said, writers can't shut down production, but actors can. For that reason, many studio executives have been more focused on preparing for a possible actors' strike next summer.
In an effort to shift the spotlight back on their union, Writers Guild leaders have declared in recent weeks that members are prepared to walk out as early as Nov. 1. The change in strategy was partly an effort to jump-start negotiations that were going nowhere, according to guild insiders. Guild leaders also reasoned that they could inflict more damage by striking during the middle of the fall TV season than by waiting until early next year, when studios would have stockpiled more scripts.
Although networks have enough shows to carry them through the fall season, a strike next month would disrupt midseason programs that begin airing in January and next year's TV pilot season. A prolonged walkout could force the networks to cancel a number of series in advance of the key February sweeps period, when the networks showcase their best shows to drive up ratings that help establish the advertising rates for television stations.
Writers Guild leaders also were said to be concerned that the Directors Guild of America would negotiate an early deal, setting a framework for the other talent unions and potentially undercutting the Writers Guild's own goals. The Directors Guild has laid the groundwork for negotiations to begin this year, well before its contract expires in June.
Walking out next month, however, poses a considerable risk for the Writers Guild. Today's studios are better able to withstand a strike than in 1988 because they're owned by media conglomerates with deep pockets.
For their part, network executives have been preparing for a strike for months and say they will be ready should a walkout happen. They've ordered an unusual number of pilots for next year and have lined up a plethora of reality TV shows, sports programs and shows culled from their libraries to fill the airwaves during a strike.
Writers are rushing to finish scripts by Oct. 31, the deadline many studios have imposed. Some feature film studios have put a moratorium on signing deals with writers until the contract dispute is resolved.
Writers also are trying to grapple with far-reaching strike rules the guild recently announced. The rules could prove especially nettlesome for so-called hyphenates, writers who also work as producers and directors, who find themselves caught between two warring groups. To keep working, and to avoid possible fines and sanctions by their unions, some writers have signed contracts to work as "producer consultants," said one entertainment industry attorney, an arrangement that would allow them to cross picket lines.