There’s no real way to gauge who “won” the tumultuous 100-day-long writers strike that ended over the weekend, pending official ratification by Writers Guild membership. In Hollywood, as in politics and sports, today’s unassailable predictions are tomorrow’s blown calls.
If we really wanted to know whether the concessions the WGA has wrangled as part of the strike settlement were worth the pain and anguish of a three-month work stoppage, we’d have to revisit the deal in five years to see if the world rotated on its axis just the way we thought it would. The deal may transform the use of content on the Web, making writers rich and changing the entire power structure of Hollywood.
Or maybe it won’t.
But for all those writers who question if it was worth three months of picketing and pencils down for a modest series of gains -- most important, achieving jurisdiction over new media work and doubling the old DVD residual rate for new media -- I’d suggest a quick look back at showbiz guild history. In 1960, after a lengthy strike, Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan won a pivotal residuals agreement, allowing actors to earn residuals for movies on network TV.
Instead of being ecstatic, much of the membership was unhappy because the residuals weren’t retroactive but were only paid for films made after 1960. But the die was cast. Residuals spread far and wide. At first they expired after a relatively brief period of time. By the mid 1970s, SAG President Dennis Weaver was able to convince Lew Wasserman, then lord of the Hollywood universe, to make residuals a lifetime affair.
In other words, big triumphs begin as little victories.
Of course, when it comes to making judgment calls, in today’s media universe we don’t wait for the dust to settle. Instant analysis is demanded. So with that caveat in mind, let’s look at some of the winners and losers of the writers strike.
* The WGA leadership: Whenever I spoke to studio chiefs, they heaped abuse on Patric Verrone and David Young, dismissing them as naive, hapless militants with no clue about how to negotiate a showbiz contract. All wrong. Despite some missteps along the way, the WGA leaders kept their fractious membership together, courted the powerful TV show runners, thrashed the studios in the PR wars and stayed cool under fire. For all the concessions they had to make, they got the guild perhaps the best deal it’s had in decades. If that’s not saying much, that’s more a reflection on the perilous state of unions and Hollywood than on the WGA.
* Peter Chernin and Bob Iger: Lew Wasserman isn’t coming back from the grave (unless NBC’s Ben Silverman thinks the stunt would get great ratings as a reality TV special), but it turns out that the showbiz titan had two worthy replacements in News Corp’s Chernin and Disney’s Iger, who stepped in to make peace after enduring months of rancor provoked by Nick Counter, the studio’s hand-picked negotiator. Having the hard-nosed Chernin at the table had a whiff of Nixon goes to China, since News Corp. famously drives such a hard deal with talent. But his studio peers felt safe knowing Chernin would never make a concession they couldn’t live with. Taking control because they had the most TV business at stake, Chernin and Iger sensed the time was right for the deal, with fatigue having set in on both sides. Iger had an extra incentive for a speedy resolution, believing that an Oscar broadcast without movie star glitz would do irreparable damage to one of ABC’s big paydays.
* The Directors Guild: With so much historic bad blood between the WGA and the DGA, it wasn’t easy for writers to acknowledge how much the DGA’s deal set the tone for a successful strike outcome, just as it wasn’t easy for the directors to admit that much of their leverage came from the studio’s desire to settle with them as a way of undercutting the WGA solidarity. As one of my sardonic screenwriter pals joked: “It’s the auteur theory of labor negotiations -- we do all the work and the DGA gets all the credit.” Nonetheless, DGA leaders Michael Apted and Gil Cates deserve praise for making a deal that wasn’t just a good deal for their guild, but dealt with issues relevant to writers, allowing it to serve as an ice-breaker for the WGA-studio impasse.
* Jay Leno: Amazingly, his monologue is going strong and his ratings are better than ever, despite the conventional thinking that David Letterman, armed with a full quiver of writing talent, would overtake a “Tonight Show” reduced to animal acts and C-list celebs. Leno managed to hit all the right notes, visiting the picket lines and paying his staff out of his own pocket, then staging a fierce battle to protect his most precious resource -- his monologue -- daring the WGA to discipline him (they never did).
* Billy Ray: Though initially a strike skeptic, Ray, a writer-director of such films as “Shattered Glass” and “Breach,” played a big behind-the-scenes role in steering the DGA into friendlier territory. He was a prime force behind the formation of an influential group of writer-directors -- known as the WD 40 -- that used its influence as members of both guilds to help nudge the DGA toward crafting a deal that was for good for everyone, not just its directors.
* Nikki Finke: As much as I hate complimenting someone who has consistently belittled my newspaper’s coverage of the strike, not to mention trashed my own work, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Finke turned her Deadline Hollywood Daily blog into a must-read for timely strike coverage. While many of my writer pals scoffed at the accuracy of some of her “scoops,” she racked up an eye-popping amount of traffic, proving again that the Web is a great leveler, allowing one dogged reporter to successfully compete with far bigger news organizations.
* Nick Counter: The longtime head of the studio alliance ended up being viewed as the chief obstacle to a settlement, not just by WGA loyalists but by neutral parties, notably a host of the town’s top agents, who were appalled by Counter’s willingness to walk away from negotiations without making a serious offer. Accustomed to the go-along, get-along style of previous guild negotiators, Counter had zero chemistry with the aggressive new WGA leaders and miscalculated badly, believing his tough tactics would eventually cause the guild to crumble. Instead, the guild brought in Alan Wertheimer (a veteran attorney whom the studios viewed with respect) to help make their case and negotiated directly with Chernin and Iger, with Counter shunted aside, no longer running the show.
* Barry Meyer: Conspicuously absent from the negotiating table, the Warner Bros. Entertainment chief was responsible for the biggest blunder of the strike, his saber-rattling shot across the bow last July, calling for an end to residual payments for showbiz talent. Intended to intimidate the WGA just as contract talks were to begin, it had exactly the opposite effect, instantly uniting the guild’s upstairs-downstairs membership who had all, at one time or another, found themselves living off their residuals. Studio negotiators eventually dropped the issue, but the damage was done, since the demand pushed guild leaders into an even more aggressive negotiating posture, believing they were faced with a rollback intended to crush the union.
* The Golden Globes: Does anyone remember that Johnny Depp won a Globe a few weeks ago? Strip away the red carpet, the movie stars and some reliably antic behavior at the ceremonies and what do you have? An award show that no one in Hollywood paid the slightest attention to. Reduced to a 35-minute press conference by the refusal of actors to cross WGA picket lines, the Globes were revealed to be what they’ve tried so hard to disguise, a collection of awards concocted by 83 obscure foreign journalists, not an actual Hollywood institution.
* Jeff Zucker: The Universal NBC chief showed how little respect he has for his news division by trying to pull off the scam of transforming the Globes into a prime-time news event after threats of a picket by striking workers forced the cancellation of the network’s cash-cow awards show. If anyone needed any evidence of how low today’s studio chiefs would stoop to conquer, Zucker provided plenty of proof, even at one point trying to bar rival TV outlets from covering the event, as our Matea Gold reported last month.
* The talent agencies: There’s enough collateral damage from the strike to go around, but most of the Hollywood agencies have been hit especially hard, already having been forced to quietly lay off agents and support staff to make up for a huge loss in billings. To make matters worse, one of the most dramatic results of the strike will be a wave of belt-tightening at networks, including huge cutbacks on TV pilots and even worse, replacement of costly scripted shows with cheap reality programming, leaving many top agency clients out in the cold.
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