The impending stoppage sparks a war of words

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated February 15, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Strikers: Campion/Corbis Sygma

The TV writers say they don’t want a strike. The movie writers say they don’t want a strike. The studios say they don’t want a strike. In other words, there’s going to be a strike. At least that’s the rumor rolling across Hollywood right now. Despite promising developments at the negotiating table — last week the Writers Guild of America dropped its two week deadline for a deal, extending closed door talks with the studios — the mood among scriptwriters these days is anything but upbeat. ”Everybody recognizes that a strike is probably inevitable,” says former ”Spin City” exec producer Richard Day. ”But nobody is enthusiastic about it. Nobody wants it.”

What the writers do want, of course, is more money — increases in their takes from video, DVD, and cable sales, a bigger cut of foreign residuals, and a slice of future Internet profits (when we all start downloading TV shows and movie rentals from the Web). But the Guild is also asking for something else, something Hollywood writers have never dared demand before: respect. They’re demanding more input in the moviemaking process, plus access to movie sets, cast readings, dailies, and test screenings. And — one of their loudest demands — they want an end to the possessory (”A Film By”) credit, which lavishes all the glory on the director and none on the ink stained wretches who actually create the characters and put words in their mouths.

All of the above was presented to studios last month by the WGA’s well respected president, John Wells (executive producer for ”ER,” ”The West Wing,” and ”Third Watch”), in a blazingly bold 42 point document that caused almost as much controversy in Hollywood as a new Joe Eszterhas script. It wasn’t just the studios that were taken aback by the audacity of the WGA’s demands. Even some writers were dumbfounded.

”I’m a writer who has to work every week to make a living,” complains one television scribe who wants to continue working (and thus prefers to remain off the record). ”There are millionaire writers who can afford to strike over ‘A Film By’ credit or the right to go to the set. But I can’t. Not until I’m a millionaire too.”

Some of those millionaires are balking at their Guild’s demands as well. ”These so called respect issues are ridiculous,” insists ”Law & Order” creator (and longtime WGA member) Dick Wolf. ”The point about writers being allowed on the set? That might work if there’s only one writer, but what about a movie like ‘Charlie’s Angels’? There were something like 18 writers on that script. The writers’ coffee bill on that movie could have financed an entire indie production. Are they going to bus all 18 to the set?”

The WGA has always been something of a divided union — most Hollywood writers can’t agree on where to order lunch, let alone what codicils they want in their contracts — but the looming strike seems to be heating up long simmering hostilities between the Guild’s TV and movie members. TV scribes, you see, already have much of what is being demanded; all they want is more money.

”Television writers tell directors what to do,” explains ”Everybody Loves Raymond” executive producer Phil Rosenthal. ”In television, the writer is king.” (Or at least executive producer, which is what TV writers are called when they get promoted.) Film writers, on the other hand, usually occupy an on the lot status slot slightly above Key Grip. For these long suffering scribblers, respect is a far more pressing issue than foreign residuals will ever be.

Respect, though, isn’t nearly so easy to type into a contract. According to the studios, many of the Guild’s demands — especially the elimination of the ”A Film By” credit — aren’t within their power to grant. They’ve been telling writers to take up those particular issues with the Directors Guild of America. Not a terribly helpful suggestion, since a lot of directors are even less thrilled than the studios by the WGA’s demands.

”Don’t be fooled by the word respect,” fumes horror director John Carpenter. ”The writers want power. They don’t want to be invited [to the set] — they want it mandated. They want to change how movies are made. We’re talking about a jihad here. This is an ancient holy war to them. And speaking as an active member of the DGA, I’ll do everything necessary to protect directors’ creative rights. Everything necessary.”

Not all directors are so militant. Kevin Smith, the indie auteur behind ”Clerks” and ”Dogma” (who also happens to write all his own movies), actually agrees with the WGA on the possessory issue. ”The credit is crap,” he says. ”If it’s used at all, it should be sparingly. Folks like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch deserve it, because their names stand for a certain quality of film. Folks of my caliber have no business throwing that self indulgent prepositional phrase up there.”

Nevertheless, if the writers do end up striking when their current contract expires May 2, don’t expect much look for that union label camaraderie from their brothers and sisters at the Directors’ Guild of America. In fact, the writers themselves aren’t counting on support from anyone. ”It’s like the baseball strike,” one sitcom writer says. ”Nobody has a lot of sympathy for out of work millionaires. But there are real labor issues here.”

Whether they’re real enough to push both TV and film writers onto the picket line is what Hollywood is holding its breath to find out. Although few people know for sure what’s being said at the negotiating table — Wells isn’t talking and neither are the studios — there’s little hint of optimism in the air. ”There’s huge uneasiness, huge trepidation,” says one high level television executive. ”Everyone is afraid the writers are going to march over the hill at Gallipoli and get creamed, that they’ll lead themselves like lemmings off the cliff.”

Certainly both sides seem to be lining up on the edge. The studios have been accelerating production schedules for months, backlogging enough films to see them through the fall. Television shows have been preparing for the worst by asking producers to tap out extra episodes, with some staffs obliging (like Wolf’s at ”Law & Order”) and others refusing (”They asked for six additional scripts,” says ”Everybody Loves Raymond”’s Rosenthal, ”but I couldn’t in good conscience do it”).

Some even fear that the studios actually want a strike, that their number crunchers see work stoppage as effective cost control, allowing them to shut down operations and prune their payrolls of deadwood production deals. Peter Chernin, the president/ CEO of News Corp., all but endorsed a writers’ walkout in a speech at a media conference in December of last year: ”The good news is that from an earnings perspective, [a strike] would be almost entirely positive. There are short term benefits [lower production costs, accounting charges] and virtually no longer term implications.”

”I know that the Writers Guild sent out letters to its members telling them to gear up for a strike, not to buy houses,” says former ”Seinfeld” scribe Carol Leifer. ”It’s scared a lot of people. People are panicking, saying it’s going to last two or three months or it’s going to last six months. It changes weekly.”

Much of this may just be posturing, both sides trying to spook the other into blinking first. Even some WGA members believe many of the Guild’s ”respect” demands will evaporate before negotiations are finished. Still, it’s also possible all this maneuvering may take on a momentum of its own, spinning out of control. It’s happened before, in 1988, when the last writers’ strike shut down Hollywood for more than five months, costing the town a half billion dollars in lost revenues. ”People discovered they could read books or watch videos or just go for a walk,” Wolf says, all but shuddering at the memory. ”Network television still hasn’t recovered from that strike.”

If it happens again, the damage could be even more devastating. It could trigger a strike cascade, pushing the Screen Actors Guild onto the picket lines when its contract with the studios expires in June, followed by the Directors Guild when its expires in 2002. Add concern about the soft economy, and it’s easy to see why everyone in Hollywood is dreading what the next few months may bring.

Well, almost everyone. ”I’m kind of looking forward to the picket lines,” Leifer cheerfully offers. ”Those signs are going to be the most elaborately written pieces of work. Everyone is looking forward to seeing writers erasing and doing second drafts of their signs.”

Additional reporting by Jeff Jensen, Dan Snierson, and Allison Hope Weiner