Will there be a sequel?
THE year was 1988 and Hollywood’s writers were still smarting from concessions made in a 1985 strike that left them with only a small percentage of residuals for DVDs and other rebroadcasts of their material. It was a time of high stakes, passion and confusion -- in other words, a time not unlike the present.
Many current members of the Writers Guild of America don’t remember the last major strike by the writers. One reason is that it was 19 years ago; another is that two-thirds of the guild’s 8,000 members have joined since then. So if current talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers end in a strike when the contract runs out Thursday, it may be their first experience with picket lines.
Opinions then were loud and varied but always articulate. “Even the most ridiculous positions on both sides tended to be clearly stated and well organized,” recalled Carl Gottlieb, a member of the WGA negotiating team then and now. Whether it was worth it remains a matter of debate. “No one wins a war,” he said.
Here, some of those involved in the 1988 strike -- it lasted about six months -- take a not-so-fond look backward and offer projections of what a strike in 2007 would mean.
Robert Eisele, writer-producer, most recently of the upcoming “The Great Debaters.” When the 1988 strike was called, Eisele had just ended one season as a supervising producer on “The Equalizer.”
Contrary to the widely held view that leftists ran the guild, Eisele recalled a strong difference of opinion from writers who didn’t like unionism, or those who, unlike himself, hadn’t saved enough money to afford a work stoppage. After one pre-strike meeting at the Hollywood Palladium, a friend nearly got into a fistfight when he was challenged by an anti-strike member. “I was at his shoulder, ready to throw down if necessary,” he said.
But after the strike began, the union held together, he said. To pass time when they weren’t working, members gathered at one another’s homes to read excerpts of their work.
“It gets lonely not being on a show, so you seek the comfort of other writers,” he said. “Some people read a script or poetry, little essays or excerpts from plays. Many of us take our work very seriously, though it’s primarily to entertain. It’s the craft with which we express ourselves. To have that business close up on you, none of us want to do it, but we will do it if we have to.”
During the strike, some writers gained from having spent time with family, other writers and spec writing. But all lost money while careers stood still. Yet Eisele credits the sacrifices of previous strikers for enabling him to earn a good living with his work, putting two children through college. He believes in doing the same for others, including a son now working for producers.
“I tell young writers, ‘We have to stay the course.’ I say, ‘If you can afford a Mercedes, get a Camry. If you can afford a Bentley, get a Mercedes.’ I tell them to tighten their belts and be optimistic.”