Private overtures led to strike breakthrough
Studio executives and leaders of the Writers Guild of America were barely on speaking terms a month ago when John Bowman took matters into his own hands.
The head of the guild’s negotiating committee, a onetime writer on “Saturday Night Live,” Bowman asked a talent agent friend to arrange a private meeting with adversaries in Hollywood’s languishing labor talks.
Days later, on Jan. 10, Bowman found himself in the living room of Peter Chernin’s Santa Monica home, sipping Scotch with the News Corp. president and two of his allies -- Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer and CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.
The men made small talk; Bowman mentioned he had coached Moonves’ son in Little League baseball. Then, the conversation turned serious.
Poor communications, they all agreed, had helped trigger a strike that had shut down TV production, thrown thousands of people out of work and threatened to turn next fall’s TV season into chaos.
“It was an ice-breaker,” Bowman said.
The two-hour meeting kick-started labor negotiations that culminated in a tentative three-year contract that is likely to end today a three-month strike and be ratified next week by the 10,500 members of the guild covered by the contract.
Approval of the deal would drop the curtain on one of the most hostile -- and costly -- labor battles in Hollywood memory. At stake: future revenue from the distribution and sale of movies and TV shows in the digital age. The battle pitted content creators against the corporate giants that control it.
Even before talks first began on a new contract in July, animosity bordering on loathing between the guild’s chief negotiator, David Young, and the studios’ point man, Nick Counter, hobbled the chances of any fruitful exchanges.
A veteran organizer of garment and construction workers, Young was a brash newcomer to Hollywood, while the confrontational Counter had scores of contracts under his belt over a two-decade tenure as the industry’s chief labor negotiator.
They couldn’t even agree on how many chairs should be in the room.
At a meeting in October, days before the writers’ contract was to expire, Counter showed up at the guild’s West Coast headquarters with an entourage of 20 labor relations executives. Young was taken aback. He had planned for half that many -- and had only eight on his side of the table.
Young wouldn’t budge from his chair, leaving Counter’s posse standing. Out of embarrassment, “Desperate Housewives” writer Marc Cherry got up and rummaged through the building for more chairs.
The talks went nowhere. The WGA contract expired at midnight on Halloween and writers walked off the job the following week. Thousands were tireless on the picket lines.
But as the holidays approached, the euphoria gave way to dread of a long, financially crippling strike. Paychecks had stopped for countless idled makeup artists, grips, set designers and production crews. The domino effect rippled through the broader local economy, affecting everyone from waitresses to dentists.
Spirits sank further when the Directors Guild of America, growing impatient with the lack of progress made by the writers, seized the initiative and opened their own talks in early January on a new contract with studios.
Because of the directors’ track record in previous labor talks, writers feared that the DGA -- which represents movie and TV directors as well as thousands of production crew members -- would give in to studio demands.
What the directors were cooking up was on Bowman’s mind when he met with studio executives at Chernin’s house. Would the studio bosses hold off dealing with the directors until the writers had another shot, Bowman asked. No dice, Chernin told him. The writers’ window had closed.
Writers in revolt
With the WGA shut out and the DGA days away from a pact, factions within the writers union became more vocal.
One group of writers, known as the Dirty 30, on Jan. 14 had crammed into the Beverly Hills living room of “American Dreams” writer Jonathan Prince. It was not a solidarity meeting. Some of the writers had just lost million-dollar TV development contracts as studios cut them loose. Word was leaking that the directors were on the cusp of a new contract after only a week of negotiations.
Seated in the middle of the room were two members of the guild’s negotiating committee: Robert King, who wrote the 2000 film “Vertical Limit,” and sitcom writer Howard Gould. The question to them: Why couldn’t the WGA make progress and what was the leadership’s game plan?
Some writers warned they were ready to place an ad in a Hollywood trade paper urging WGA leaders to embrace the directors’ deal. King and Gould talked them out of it.
Some dissident writers have individually relayed their concerns to guild leaders.
“I told Bowman that if this strike drags on much longer, he was going to lose a lot of us,” said writer Peter Landesman. “We didn’t want to undermine the union but we felt the costs of continuing the strike would outweigh the potential benefits.”
Bowman dismissed the threats: “We were getting undue pressure . . . from the Dirty 30,” he recalled later. “Not for one second did we take that into consideration.”
But it was harder to ignore the concerns of John Wells, the executive producer of “West Wing” and a past WGA president.
After the the DGA unveiled its new contract on Jan. 17, Wells, considered a moderate whom some writers criticize for being too cozy with the studios, e-mailed hundreds of WGA members an effusive endorsement, calling the deal “very good.”
That night, Wells and Ken Ziffren, a lawyer who had advised the DGA during its negotiations, attended a dinner at Paul Attanasio’s home. The summit at the “Donnie Brasco” screenwriter’s Beverly Hills house was Hollywood’s equivalent of a mob conclave: Eric Roth, Steve Zaillian, Akiva Goldsman, Scott Frank, Gary Ross and Aaron Sorkin.
The elite scribes got behind the DGA blueprint. What the WGA lacked, they concluded, was a legal gun who could bring a dispassionate perspective to the negotiations and an exit strategy.
Shortly afterward, the guild hired as its outside counsel lawyer Alan Wertheimer, who was recommended by one of his clients, WGA board member Ron Bass, the writer of “Rain Man.”
A third, more hard-line camp was wary that the WGA would cave in and accept an inferior contract that would not adequately compensate writers for their work in the digital age.
In late January, 600 writers, including a majority of influential show runners, signed an open letter to the guild’s leaders insisting the WGA hang tough.
Steve Levitan, co-show runner of Fox’s “Back to You,” belittled the Dirty 30, calling them “loudmouths who felt they needed to chime in and accept the deal that they hadn’t seen or heard yet.”
Some militants had resorted to guerrilla tactics to promote the union’s cause. One evening outside a home in Bel Air where DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg was discussing a peace plan to end the strike with a group of “moderates,” the militants struck. As people left the meeting and approached their cars, they found sheets of paper stuck under their windshield wipers. “Don’t be weak!” the fliers goaded.
Jan. 22, five days after the new DGA contract was announced, negotiators for the writers and the studios met face to face.
Days before, Chernin, in a conciliatory gesture that would have been unthinkable a month earlier, had made separate courtesy calls to guild leaders Patric Verrone, Young and Bowman to let them know that the DGA deal would be announced in an hour. He invited them to renew negotiations.
They agreed to meet for breakfast at the Luxe Hotel in Brentwood. Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger joined them.
At the breakfast, union leaders agreed not to press for jurisdictional issues that had sidetracked earlier talks. That was welcome news for Chernin and Iger, who in return agreed to become personally involved in the negotiations as they had with the directors.
The two studio executives had been designated to represent the eight major companies that dominate the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. This effectively sidelined the alliance’s Counter, who had led the negotiations for the studios for more than two decades.
Three days later, on Jan. 25, the two studio bosses, Young, Bowman and Counter got together at the Brentwood residence of Wertheimer, the lawyer the guild had hired. Seated at the large Stickley arts and crafts table in the dining room of Wertheimer’s Craftsman-style home, munching on deli sandwiches, the group over the next six hours came to a meeting of the minds on some key issues.
One big victory for the writers: The union won jurisdiction over shows created for the Internet. They continued to haggle over other points, including how long studios could stream shows online for free before having to pay writers residuals.
But on Feb. 1, there was a breakthrough. During an eight-hour session at the Luxe, Chernin and Iger made a concession. Rather than giving writers the same fixed residual payment as directors when their work was sold online, they sweetened the pot. In the final year of the three-year contract, writers would get a percentage of revenue.
By 5:15 p.m., however, talks had hit a snag. In a hallway outside their meeting room, Young, Bowman and Verrone delivered some bad news to Chernin and Iger. They were unhappy with parts of the overall package and wanted another day at the table.
“We’re done,” Chernin said, telling his opponents he wasn’t a “professional nitpicker,” according to one person at the meeting.
The two camps retreated to their separate rooms. Wertheimer advised the guild leaders against taking another day, warning them that the other side’s patience was wearing thin. Within 15 minutes, the trio came back with one condition: They’d take the deal and recommend it to the board and members if the studios would rehire writers with ongoing shows who had been fired during the strike.
Given that the studios would need those writers back, that was a no-brainer.
Times staff writer Maria-Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.
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