It’s a writers strike, but actors play a major role

At the start of the writers strike last November, everyone had a good laugh when Entertainment Weekly did a big cover story illustrated entirely with pictures, not of writers, but TV stars like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Marg Helgenberger and “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno. (The magazine did run a photo of “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey, but she was identified as “showing her solidarity” with the strikers, not as one of their own.)

As it turns out, the celeb-conscious magazine was simply ahead of the curve. The real story behind the demise of the Golden Globes earlier this week is that the writers strike has quietly metamorphosed into the story of how Hollywood is being shut down by two unions, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. This unprecedented guild alliance not only upended the Globes and promises to wreak havoc with the Oscars, but has Hollywood’s studio overlords re-evaluating their dismissals of the WGA as a bunch of radicals and crackpots too hapless to engineer a successful labor stoppage.

The WGA may have made some missteps lately, notably having sent enough mixed signals to Leno that he began writing his own monologues when “The Tonight Show” returned to the air, leaving the guild in the awkward position of having to choose between disciplining one of its most high-profile members or letting him flout the rules, either course sure to aggravate some guild members.

However, when it came to its most important strategic decision -- striking an alliance with SAG -- the WGA was right on the money. It may have been a quirk of fate that WGA, West President Patric Verrone and SAG President Alan Rosenberg were elected within days of each other in late 2005. But the two men, both TV veterans -- Rosenberg having been a regular on “The Guardian” and “Chicago Hope,” Verrone as a writer on “Futurama” and “The Simpsons” -- turned out to be kindred spirits, both elected after vowing to take a more aggressive stand on negotiations.


The new union leaders realized two things: The studio conglomerates view their unions as unruly pests, gumming up the money-making machinery, but understood that both unions had a long history of divisive infighting, madcap antics and negotiating debacles. (Surely the wag who first described an organization as “a firing squad that formed a circle” was a WGA member.) Having seen their guilds bested by the studios in virtually every past negotiation, both men knew they didn’t have the luxury of ego-driven bickering.

As Verrone tartly puts it: “You either hang together or you hang separately.”

Within a week of their elections, the two men got together for lunch. “I’d say that we’ve either had lunch or a meeting together every week or 10 days ever since,” says Verrone. When the WGA staged a demonstration over product-integration issues, Rosenberg showed up to lend support. Starting near the end of 2006, the duo began making regular set visits together, talking with actors, screenwriters and TV show runners about common issues.

“In a lot of ways, our strike is now SAG’s strike too,” says Daniel Cerone, a WGA member and executive producer of “Dexter,” a Showtime series that’s now going to be shown on CBS. “We’re taking the bullets right now because our contract was up first, but you hear it from all the writers out on the picket line -- it makes a huge difference having SAG behind us.”


At a time when the WGA membership was growing restive, concerned about how negotiations with the studios had fallen apart, Rosenberg, who’d attended many of the key sessions himself, was there to buck up the troops.

As Verrone explains: “It made a huge difference when Alan wrote a letter to our membership, saying essentially, ‘Any doubts you might have, I’m here to say, SAG is with you. I was there and I can testify that it was the [studio] negotiators who walked away from the table, not your guys.’ ”

While the WGA gets points for its persistence in squaring off with the Golden Globes, the real coup de grace came last Friday when Rosenberg sent out a statement saying that “it appears to be unanimous agreement” that his actors wouldn’t attend the Globes as acceptors or presenters. As Rosenberg put it: “It sent a powerful message to the industry that we had the complete support of our biggest stars.”

The WGA still has some fence mending to do with its biggest stars, notably “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, a WGA member who is clearly peeved that after encouraging the guild last month to give a waiver to David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company, he couldn’t get a waiver for his own show. The guild insists a deal would have to be with Comedy Central, the network that airs “The Daily Show,” not with one program.


Stewart’s feathers were also ruffled when guild members and outside union allies made a barrage of phone calls to a Cornell labor relations professor who was Stewart’s first guest when he returned to the air, trying to talk the professor out of crossing a picket line to appear on the show.

All these skirmishes only serve as a prelude to the next big battle front in this labor war: the Academy Awards on Feb. 24, scheduled to be hosted by none other than Stewart. It’s one thing to demolish the Globes, a show presented by a group of obscure foreign journalists who, outside of the actual night of their awards, are taken about as seriously as Paula Abdul. But the Oscars are a different story. The academy is an institution held in high regard by one and all, both inside and outside of Hollywood.

The WGA has made it clear that it is prepared to picket the Oscars. But will putting a picket line outside the Oscars be the WGA’s D-day or its Waterloo? If SAG’s top stars stay away, will an actor-less Oscars really put the hurt on the studios, depriving ABC of its biggest payday of the year, or will it cause a backlash, since many movie fans will wonder how punishing the academy’s noble efforts to honor good work helps the union cause?

It’s a move fraught with peril. The WGA is now in a position of nervously sitting on the sidelines, wondering how tough a deal the Directors Guild of America will negotiate with the studios. But if the guild seems bent on undercutting the Oscars, how much help will it get from DGA negotiation committee chairman Gil Cates, who also happens to be -- ahem -- the producer of the show?


The union leaders are convinced they aren’t overplaying their hand.

“I understand how meaningful awards can be to a lot of people -- I was nominated for an Emmy once, in the last century,” Rosenberg says. “I’m sure we’ll take some heat. But if the Writers Guild is picketing, we will follow their lead. I’m assuming no one will be crossing the picket line. You certainly won’t see me on the red carpet. I know it’s the Oscars, but we’re taking a stand -- the bigger the event, the greater the impact.”

It’s always possible that the academy, worried about the prospect of putting on a show without any recognizable Oscar recipients, could broker a compromise, perhaps offering airtime to promote the guild or donating some of its revenue from the show to a guild strike fund.

But there is also a sizable contingent of Hollywood pessimists who believe that if the Oscars go off the rails, it will only provoke more intransigence from the industry’s top dogs, who already view the guilds with thinly veiled contempt. As one of the studio chiefs I spoke to this week complained, the WGA is great at being bombastic but lousy at negotiating.


But it’s hard to take studio charges seriously when they were the ones who walked away from the negotiations, unwilling to make any significant concessions on writer participation in new media revenues.

Seeing the kind of alliance the WGA has forged with SAG, I wonder if the all-powerful studios, accustomed to picking off the guilds one by one, will discover that solidarity is more than just a tidy slogan.

As this week’s events have shown, the guilds have some weight to throw around too.



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