Scripts: the Next Big Issue in Strike

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Among producers, the polite term is “non-union scripts.”

The Writers Guild of America would prefer “scab labor.”

By either name, movie and television screenplays delivered to producers despite the guild’s 18-week-old strike have become one of the touchiest topics in Hollywood.

Even as guild members prepared to vote Wednesday night on their latest strike tactic--a so-called “interim” contract that is supposed to lure individual companies away from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers--the alliance was working on a gambit of its own.

Herb Steinberg, spokesman for the producers group, said he was compiling a list of TV shows, including several prime-time series, that would go into production this summer with scripts from . . . where?

“We can’t reveal names for legal reasons,” Steinberg said.

According to Steinberg, however, the alliance is taking all screenwriting offers seriously, and it plans to circulate immediately among its members a compilation of 60 queries sent by amateur and professional writers who hail from as far away as Lima, Ohio, and from as nearby as Beverly Hills.

“I’ve been following your negotiations with great interest,” begins a typical letter, this one from a former advertising copywriter who claims to have worked in the past for MTM, which produced “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and other shows.

The guild is equally serious about hunting down violators of its strike policy, which threatens members with fines and expulsion and non-members with future banishment if they write for struck companies.

“NOTICE! To all future writers--the guild is actively investigating reports of individuals who are writing for struck companies,” read a warning in Hollywood trade papers on Wednesday.

The union’s disciplinary committee claims to have nine volunteers scrupulously investigating anonymous tips and analyzing finished scripts for evidence of “illegal” revisions performed after the strike began on March 7. The guild has also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against several producers who have refused to turn over the names of writers allegedly working for them.

But how much strikebreaking is actually going on?

It is difficult to measure a phenomenon about which few movie and TV industry insiders will talk openly.

But private conversations with agents, executives, writers and others indicate that--apart from the soap operas, which have kept going with scripts delivered by secretaries and network executives alike--relatively little non-union writing has been delivered to companies.

“I haven’t seen it yet. . . ,” said one agent. “In another week or two that could change. You might see real defections (from the guild). But not yet.”

The agent said one of his writer-clients had recently turned down a bit of lucrative TV work even after a producer offered to indemnify him against any fines or other action the guild might take against him for strikebreaking.

Several agents and others said the big Hollywood studios seemed to have become more aggressive in soliciting script work since the union rejected the producers’ latest contract offer by a wide margin on June 22. But many writers still weren’t biting.

One writer, for example, said a major studio executive recently offered him a six-figure payment for three days’ work revising a screenplay that is already shooting. The writer said he turned down the offer. But he declined to identify the company or the executive, who is, he explained, a longtime associate.

In a further indication that any serious increase in production with non-guild scripts is yet to come, representatives of several craft union locals said their members, to their knowledge, still hadn’t been called back to work.

“The unemployment is still high (among our members). I haven’t seen anyone going back,” said Gene Allen, executive director of the Society of Motion Picture & TV Art Directors Local 876.

Other craft union representatives said there might be a lag time of about two weeks before they learned that a studio had hired members to return to work on a show. The various Hollywood unions aren’t legally permitted to keep members from crossing picket lines thrown up by the writers or others, but individual members may choose to honor the lines.

Still, other straws in the wind may point to bigger problems in the weeks ahead:

--Disciplinary actions. The union won’t discuss its disciplinary actions to date. But guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden says the disciplinary committee is investigating “a number of possible violations,” including “a high concentration of scabbing in the soap opera area.”

If the pace of disciplinary actions seems slow, says Rhoden, that’s because the union procedures require detailed investigation and hearings before any member or non-member is disciplined or banned. She said there are “a number of writers who repeatedly apply for admission to the union and are repeatedly denied” because of non-union work they performed during past strikes.

--Agency itch. Hollywood agents aren’t eager to get caught between the guild and producers, since their livelihood depends on the good will of both. With commissions drying up, however, several agents said they are exploring the conditions under which they can sell scripts to struck companies without violating the written contract each agent signs with the guild.

The dos and don’ts are far from clear. According to guild spokeswoman Rhoden, the agents’ agreement requires “adherence to our work rules, which would prohibit a writer from working for a non-signatory company.”

Chester Migden, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents, says that doesn’t necessarily mean that an agent can’t peddle anything to a struck company.

“We are not bound by their strike rules,” said Migden, adding that every agent is ultimately bound by his or her clients’ wishes.

--Foreigners. Companies clearly have floated some trial balloons among foreign writers, particularly in Great Britain and Canada.

But affiliated writers guilds in those countries have pledged to support the their U.S. counterparts--and they haven’t experienced heavy solicitation of their members by American companies yet.

“We’ve been expecting a step-up (in recruitment). But we haven’t seen it yet,” said Margaret Collier, international secretary of the International Affiliation of Writers Guilds, which includes Canadian, British, Australian and other English-speaking writers unions.

At least one Hollywood agent who deals largely with foreign clients also said he hasn’t seen any significant flow of scripts from abroad.

Instead, said the agent, foreign producers, assuming that the strike will keep Hollywood activity low, have become unusually aggressive in soliciting American actors and directors for European-based movies.

“I just received synopses of 30 pictures that are going to begin shooting (in Europe). That’s roughly three times the normal flow,” the agent said.

--Loopholes. There may be a few, and they may be getting more attractive as the strike grinds on. For instance, Scott Rudin Productions--an independent company formed by former 20th Century Fox executive Scott Rudin after the strike began--last week bought a film script from a first-time, non-guild writer for several hundred thousand dollars, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Did the sale fall safely outside the strike rules, since Rudin’s company didn’t even exist when the strike was called?

The guild confirmed that Rudin’s company was never a signatory to any of its agreements, but said it didn’t have enough information to know whether the sale violated strike rules anyway, or would prejudice Rudin’s future ability to sign with the union. Rudin declined to comment.

Times staff writer Victor Valle contributed to this story.