Do the right thing, WGA

Singer Alicia Keys performs during a protest in support of the WGA on Hollywood Boulevard.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

To: Writers Guild of America, West President Patric Verrone

From: Patrick Goldstein

Dear Patric:

Well, when it rains, it really pours, huh? It’s been hard to get you on the phone, but I can imagine you’ve been a little overwhelmed these last few days, with the media hailing the Directors Guild settlement as something akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall, your writers running around with their hair on fire and studio chiefs quietly phoning every show-runner in town, telling them how easy it was to deal with the DGA instead of the intransigent cranks running the WGA.

I knew things were looking bad for you when the first mom I ran into at my kid’s school on Friday recited every boneheaded move she thought you’d made, notably the decision to blow off the DGA when they offered to share the results of their $2-million study about the impact of new media -- a study that now looks like it played a big role in the DGA’s successful negotiating strategy.

Don’t get me wrong. You’ve fought the good fight. A lot of people thought the WGA made a terrible blunder by going out on strike last November when you could’ve taken the few peanuts the studio tossed your way and called it a fair deal.

Not me.

A lot of people thought the WGA should’ve made nice with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and not spoiled their party (and NBC’s ratings) by joining arms with SAG and shutting down the Golden Globes.

Not me.

If you’ve been reading our paper, you know that I’ve been a big supporter of the strike. But now you’re in a real bind. Either out of brilliant negotiating by Gil Cates and Co. or by cynical calculation by the studios and networks, the DGA not only got a good deal but one that looks like a good deal to a lot of your membership.

You had to see that one coming -- it was the obvious play for the studios, the best way to divide and conquer. I’m sure your PR consultants must have already mentioned this to you, but the correct response was not a tight-lipped answer about needing time to study the numbers. You could’ve heaped praise on the DGA (painful, I know, considering guild history but image-wise the right thing to do), sounded happy that the studios were willing to return to the table and asked members to e-mail their opinions about the deal to you (which might have prevented them from e-mailing them all to people like me).

I know it must be aggravating right now to have so many clubhouse lawyers running around, telling you what to do. Less than 24 hours after the DGA deal was announced, ex-WGA President John Wells e-mailed an endorsement of the deal to a few close friends (meaning everyone on the Internet), boxing you in by adding that “he can only assume” you’d be meeting with the studio negotiators “by early next week to resolve these, last final issues.” Hey, with friends like that. . . .

But methods aside, I think he made some shrewd points that you should be making too. The studios may be trying to use the DGA deal as a wedge against you, but the fact remains that you paved the way for a big part of the DGA’s success by hanging tough.

But at this stage of the strike, you need to act more like a statesman than a street fighter. Your membership is tired, cranky and feeling the economic pinch. They want to go back to work. The DGA agreement has unleashed an enormous amount of pent-up frustration and angst caused by the strike. You had a membership that was united largely by vitriol for the studios who’d put them out in the cold by walking away from negotiations.

All that aggravation is still alive -- it’s just now pointing in a new direction. At you. I’ve talked to a pretty wide swath of your members. They remain loyal to your original goals. None of them, contrary to some media reports, are ready to go Fi-Core. But they want you back at the negotiating table. They’re like the Republicans in Michigan who voted for Mitt Romney, even though the chances of him bringing back auto jobs are slim and none. They don’t want to hear any more bad news. They crave optimism -- they want to believe you can close the deal.

You should go back to the table and make the studios pledge not to leave, like they did before, until you have a deal. What you shouldn’t do is get bogged down in peripheral fights. You’ve got a board meeting tonight to decide whether to give an interim agreement to the people putting on the Grammy Awards next month, the same kind of waiver deal you gave to the SAG Awards and the NAACP Image Awards. If you set up picket lines, SAG will surely tell its pop star/actor members to stay away, which will create havoc if not cast a pall over the entire show.

It would be a big mistake for the WGA to try to put the Grammys out of business. It’s the wrong fight with the wrong people at the wrong time. I know the Grammy telecast is a big moneymaker for CBS, and it’s been your strategy to deprive struck companies of revenue opportunities that might fill their coffers.

But the Grammys are not the Golden Globes. The Globes are run by a featherweight group of foreign journalists whose net weight in doing good for the world is near zero.

The Grammys are different. When it comes to doing good in the world, the recording academy, known as NARAS, is a heavyweight. Less than a week after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, long before our own government got around to doing anything, the recording academy’s charity arm, MusiCares, pledged $1 million in relief funds, which eventually grew to $4 million in donations to musicians whose lives were upended by the disaster.

They do tons of other good deeds, especially with substance abuse issues and education opportunities for young kids. Since the vast majority of the money for all the charitable efforts comes from their TV broadcast, you’d be hurting NARAS far more than you’d be hurting CBS by disrupting the show.

More importantly, you’d be hurting your cause. Musicians are your allies, not your adversaries. They are artists who see the world in much the same way writers do. Songwriters and singers were blacklisted alongside screenwriters during the Red Scare for their political beliefs. Songwriters gave voice to the civil rights struggle even before screenwriters had the opportunity to put those themes on screen. The same goes for today’s fight against global warming.

When you had your big rally last November, Alicia Keys was there performing in solidarity. When your writers were picketing Fox last week, they were joined by Elvis Costello, who showed up, without fanfare, to man the picket lines. “The writers are our brothers and sisters,” NARAS President Neil Portnow told me Friday. “We’re totally behind the writers’ goals. The issues we’re fighting for are identical. I can’t believe the WGA wants to create hardship and pain for people who have the same struggle that they do.”

What’s worse, Patric, is that you shouldn’t pick a fight you might lose. NARAS won’t roll over and play dead like the Globes. They have lawyers, they have Sitrick and Co. They have artists who’ve already said they’ll show up and perform. Instead of making enemies, make some friends. Use the Grammys to get out your message. When I asked Portnow what he thought about having WGA member Sean Penn on stage, introducing Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Eddie Vedder and Kanye West -- just for instance -- singing a song of solidarity with your guild, he said, “We’d be open to any vehicle where people could express their support.”

You should be helping them come up with a set list, not forcing them to cross a picket line. And with your dreaded adversary, studio negotiator Nick Counter, apparently out of the way -- with the DGA dealing directly with studio heads -- you should get back to the table. Not to cave in but to get something more. When the Israelis were at the height of their frustrations in negotiating with Yasser Arafat, it was Abba Eban who said that Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Don’t give people the chance to say the same thing about you.

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