The impending strike sparks a bitter new war of words, pitting scribes against scribes

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated February 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

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, 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.