By Jack Egan
Hopes are rising in Hollywood that an end to the crippling writers’ strike, heading toward its fourth month while causing tens of thousands of below-the-line crew to be laid off, may finally be near. The reason: talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers have resumed for the first time since they broke off in early December.
Feeding optimism as this issue of Below the Line went to press is the agreement on a new contract for movie and television directors that was struck in mid-January after brief negotiations between the Directors Guild of America and the studios. The terms of that deal could provide a model for a similar pact between the WGA and AMPTP, leading to a quick resumption of production activity.
“Ten days ago we reached a tentative agreement with the studios and today the board approved it unanimously,” DGA president Michael Apted announced. “We achieved our three primary goals: jurisdiction in new media, which was absolutely essential; compensation for the use and reuse of our work in new media; and significant gains on issues of real importance for our work in traditional media.”
But just as the two sides seem to be engaged in a negotiating end-game, there’s a new fly in the ointment—the possibility that 110,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild will strike when the actors’ contract expires at the end of June, effectively shutting down all production activity.
Though SAG has so far been a staunch ally of the WGA during its strike, there’s already been some grumbling by actors that the DGA-AMPTP deal didn’t go far enough, although it contains the key provisions desired by both the WGA and SAG on new media.
The onus is on WGA West president Patric Verrone to deliver a deal that justifies the heavy losses suffered by many scribes during the strike, also satisfies SAG and saves face for the controversial leader of the writer’s guild. He’s already being second-guessed for his decision to call a strike when the WGA could have followed past practices and let the DGA serve as the lead pony.
But a more militant WGA and SAG leadership felt that the DGA was rolled by AMPTP during the last set of negations three years ago, with other guilds feeling compelled to follow suit, supposedly at a cost of billions of dollars in lost income for their members. Others wonder why the WGA didn’t pursue a potentially more effective strategy of waiting to walk out along with the actors, considerably leveraging their power in negotiations with the studios.
Whether the AMPTP will give the writers who went on strike a better deal than the directors who didn’t seems a questionable proposition. So there are some tricky negotiations that lie ahead and no guarantee that the details of a new writers’ contract will be hammered out soon enough to permit the Oscars, set for Feb. 24, to go ahead without pickets keeping many nominees and the bulk of the expected attendees from showing up.
The SAG Awards towards the end of January provided a platform for showing solidarity with the writers. Verrone was introduced and got a round of applause from the audience. Daniel Day-Lewis, who won for best actor for his star turn in There Will Be Blood, said backstage after the ceremony that he was going to go along with any decision by SAG to honor possible WGA pickets. “I’ve just been given this very lovely award from my union,” he said. “I’m a card-carrying member of my union and whatever decision they make is going to be the right one.”
The approaching Academy Awards may become a kind of D-Day for either a deal to be reached in time to let the Oscar ceremony to proceed as scheduled, or else be hobbled by pickets and an absence of writers for the event. Scheduled host Jon Stewart has already said he won’t participate under such circumstances.
That may put pressure on the studios to settle sooner rather than later. The televised Academy Awards normally attracts a worldwide audience estimated at over one billion. And the film companies rely heavily on the event to promote award-winning films for extra dough at the box-office and to boost all-important DVD sales and rentals.
Those reading tea leaves see other conciliatory signs that they think bode well for an early settlement of the dispute. After all but destroying this year’s Golden Globe awards, which were reduced to a press conference when pickets were threatened, the WGA recently agreed to let the music industry’s Grammy Awards go ahead without interference, while providing a waiver that lets scribes write the obligatory patter.
The adage that silence is golden is an apt description for the renewed negotiations. The clamp-down on public comments since the talks restarted contrasts with the vituperative verbal volleys lobbed by both sides against each other that created considerable ill will.
Also, back channel talks have been taking place at a high level. Top executives of the entertainment conglomerates have reportedly been conducting direct talks with Verrone and other members of his negotiating team, rather than let AMPTP chief Nick Counter serve as their front man.
Such omens seem positive, but it’s no cinch that an agreement is at hand. The talks could also break down. And with the possibility of a SAG strike still looming, what has started out as a turbulent year could still get worse.
Written by Jack Egan