Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Recent History of WGA Strikes

CBS News features this New Republic column by Mark Evanier on the strong arm tactics used by studios and it summarizes the relationships of the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers to the studios and to the other guilds. Some excerpts follow. The final paragraph is particularly important.

As the Writers Guild of America strike ends its third week, it's worth remembering that there was a time when strikes by the WGA were like Jerry Lee Lewis marriages. Don't like the current one? Just wait. There'll be another one along any minute, and it'll be even more destructive for all concerned.

Which is not to say any of them could have been avoided. (WGA strikes, that is. Who knows from Jerry Lee's troubles?) It is a sad, frustrating part of Hollywood history that now and again, financial inequities creep up or the studio heads get even greedier than usual, and the WGA is presented with what it considers an unacceptable offer by the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers (AMPTP).

The AMPTP, to use the labor terminology, is a "multi-employer bargaining unit," a group that in this case negotiates with all the major unions on behalf of the major studios. Once the AMPTP has its deal in place with a union, independent producers sign what are called "Me-Too" contracts, meaning that they agree to the same terms. So, in essence, the AMPTP negotiates on behalf of everyone who hires union members. Too often, the way they negotiate is to hand the union or guild a "take it or leave it" offer full of rollbacks, cuts, and other onerous terms. To leave it is to go on strike. Sometimes, if the union is willing to bargain far enough ahead, they can whittle the rollbacks down a bit and claim that as a win.
* * *
Of the three "above the line" labor organizations in town - the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Writers Guild - we're the ones who have the toughest time shutting things down. When actors walk, you tend to notice it right away. There's no one to film. If the Directors walked - which they don't, but if they did - they'd also bring things to a screeching halt. With us, there's a lag, as scripts that are already completed get filmed. If you're the guy charged with rolling back the unions and getting their services cheaper, where would you start? The Actors' and Directors' current contracts expire on June 30 and July 31, 2008, respectively. The WGA's, of course, expired October 31, 2007.

It's always been like this, right down to the producers' rhetoric and the suggestions that they can live well without us. That's what they were saying back in 1933 when ten top crafters of movie scripts agreed to organize. Immediately and predictably, the studios resisted: They would never recognize such a coalition, and anyone who joined would find themselves unemployed and unemployable. It took nine years of threats, legal wranglings, and National Labor Relations Board rulings before the Screen Writers Guild was able to negotiate its first contract.
* * *
In 1981, there was a three-month WGA strike to establish compensation in the then-new markets of "pay TV" and home video. We wound up with a deal so good that the '85 contract negotiation was all about the Producers wanting to take it back. They had a better sense by then of the cash to be made in those areas and didn't like how much of it we got. So the 1985 negotiations pretty much went as follows:

They proposed a new cable/cassette formula that was much lower - an 80 percent reduction by some estimates, greater by others. There was really no money in those markets, they said, and what meager revenues existed were necessary to offset losses in other venues. (These are "losses" as defined by people who insist their top-grossing projects are still in deficit and therefore, there's no money due to anyone with a share of profits. Are they still telling Alan Alda that the M*A*S*H TV show was a money loser?) There was some talk of studies. If - big if - it turned out that selling movies on videotape was more lucrative than the writers expected, adjustments would be made down the line. It turned out, of course, that home video was more profitable than anyone anticipated. But somehow, no adjustments ever occurred - and I doubt anyone really expected they would. "We'll conduct a study" is something you agree to so the side that got the short end in the deal can save a little face.

The reduction in cable/cassette residuals was a deal breaker for them that year: No contract until we agreed to it. It was a deal breaker for us, too - mostly. We voted "no," but it was a tepid "no." The Guild was split, our leadership didn't know how to cope with that split, and the strike collapsed after three ugly weeks. We took the rollback. No one's quite figured how much writers lost, let alone calculated the losses for all the other folks in town who had deals linked to ours, either explicitly or due to pattern bargaining. The number is in the many billions - and beyond that, we can't bear to think about it. But of course the studios can. They look at how much they made off any salary rollbacks the same way they look at how much they make off any box office blockbuster. Immediately, they start thinking, "Sequel!"

In 1988, when the rolled-back WGA contract came up for renewal, the Producers did what one does when someone stupid is on the hook: They tried the same strategy again. They came at us with a series of demands that were not quite as noxious, but still pretty bad. Again, it was "Take this or there's no contract." This time, though, we'd learned, and we had better leadership. The strike of that year lasted 22 weeks - one day longer than the strike of '60 - and while we ended up agreeing to some of the cuts, we cost the Producers a lot more than they cost us.
* * *
To date, the AMPTP has not offered a contract. Their position is that they'll discuss those matters after we drop all this silly talk about a better share of home video (the extremely profitable DVD market didn't even exist when our current residual rate was negotiated) and any real share when the product we write is delivered online. It's not so much that they've refused to meet our demands - they've refused to listen to them until we accede to their main demands.

Which is why we have this strike. If it seems destructive, remember that Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild negotiations are up next. They're as militant in key areas as we are, which is why the Producers are so determined to make the writers yield. [Emphasis added.] We're just the first ones into the fray and if the AMPTP can hold us down, they'll have a stronger position when they face off on other battlefields. Remember those two words: pattern bargaining. Hollywood's going to be hearing them a lot, one way or the other.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Strike Update: Talks to Resume

Writers, Studios Agree to Talk
Variety, Fri., Nov. 16, 2007

Studios and networks will resume negotiations with striking writers on Nov. 26.
The WGA remains on strike. The companies recently dropped their insistence that the strike had to stop, at least temporarily, as a condition of restarting negotiations.

The Friday night announcement came on the 12th day of the strike in the form of a joint statement from the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

Both sides have agreed to a news blackout.

"Leaders from the AMPTP and the WGA have mutually agreed to resume formal negotiations on November 26," the statement said. "No other details or press statements will be issued."

Shortly after the joint statement was released, WGA West president Patric Verrone sent an email to the WGA membership.

"This announcement is a direct result of your efforts," Verrone said. "For 12 days I have repeated that a powerful strike means a short strike. ...Now it is equally important that we now prove that good news won't slow us down, either. We must remember that returning to the bargaining table is only a start. Our work is not done until we achieve a good contract and that is by no means assured. Accordingly, what we achieve in negotiations will be a direct result of how successfully we can keep up our determination and resolve."

Backchannel efforts have been ongoing throughout the strike to restart the talks, spurred partly by the fact that the negotiations were progressing on Nov. 4, the final day of bargaining. Since then, as job losses and show cancellations gained momentum, agents, high-profile screenwriters and showrunners have exerted pressure for a resumption of talks.

WGA leaders were angry over what they saw as a lack of substantive response by the AMPTP after the guild took its DVD residuals increase off the table. By contrast, the companies contended that they had made significant moves in new-media compensation for streaming video, providing a six-week window for promotion and giving the WGA jurisdiction over made-for-Internet work that was based on existing properties.

Verrone had indicated that for his union to restart negotiations, it needed to receive assurance that the companies would offer more in new media than they did on Nov. 4.

As for the companies, AMPTP president Nick Counter had said he needed to be convinced that the guild wanted to make a deal. He had moved away from last week's stance that the guild would have to stop striking in order to return to the table.

"For true negotiations to take place, there has to be some expectation that a deal can be made, but by their past actions and their current rhetoric that certainly doesn't appear to be the case," Counter said in his most recent statement.

On Wednesday, the WGA trumpeted a pair of surveys showing the public had plenty of sympathy for the writers, with backing of 69% in a Pepperdine poll and 63% in a SurveyUSA poll. Companies received a only a smattering of support, with 4% and 8%.

That same day, IATSE topper Thomas Short had blasted WGA leaders over job losses, noting that more than 50 TV series have been shut down by the strike. "The IATSE alone has over 50,000 members working in motion picture, television and broadcasting and tens of thousands more are losing jobs in related fields," he said.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Hitler: The Rise of Evil

Last night I got to re-watch Hitler: The Rise of Evil. It was originally a made-for-TV mini-series broadcast on network television in 2003 and the film has been in the back of my mind ever since. Last month it was released on DVD and I finally got my hands on a copy.

The film has some great production values going for it, especially for a made-for-TV production, such as the attempted coup in Munich. The film also has some very good performances by Liev Schreiber and Julianna Margulies as Hitler supporters Ernst and Helene Hanfstaengl, Peter Stormare as SA leader Ernst Röhm, Matthew Modine as anti-Nazi journalist Fritz Gerlich, Peter O'Toole as President Hindenburg, and Robert Carlyle as Adolf Hitler. Carlyle gives one of the great performances of the Fuhrer, on par with Bruno Ganz in Downfall, which I hold as one of the finest portrayals of Hitler ever made.

Dramatizing history is tough, especially when the filmmakers deal with such a well known and thoroughly researched figure as Hitler. On the one hand, the filmmaker must make storytelling decisions that place dramatic principles ahead of historical accuracy. On the other hand, it is easy to end up on a slippery slope where so much dramatic licence is taken that the portrayal of the historical figure or event no longer represents who this person or place was. This docu-drama walks that line as well as any historical film I've ever seen.

The film isn't perfect. There is a coda on the ending which feels out of place and rather forced. I think a more effective final image could have been used. Also, the one glaring historical element that I found wanting was Hitler's relationship to Joseph Goebbels and Goebbels importance to the rise of Nazi popularity in Germany, both of which are under emphasized.

But what really strikes me about this film, aside from its craft and performances, is the relevance. History is dramatized with the intent of illuminating the present. Based on what I have seen recently, films that go back further in time can be more effective to understand the present than films dramatizing current events. Consider post-9/11 films Kingdom of Heaven and Munich as compared to Rendition or The Kingdom. While there are certainly exceptions, such as In the Valley of Elah, it seems that films which dig farther into the past can tells us more about the present, perhaps because we are more removed from the event itself. The best Vietnam films were made after the war, although there were a few films during Vietnam that dealt with the war through historical metaphor. Soldier Blue, a Western about the massacre of the Cheyenne Indians, is a thinly veiled parallel for the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam.

Hitler: The Rise of Evil begins and ends with Edmond Burke's quote "The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing," and the story is filled with people making compromises with their ethics either to be polite or to accomplish their own ends. They ignore Hitler's anti-semitism, war mongering, and power grabbing until it is too late. There is a large emphasis, especially in the third act, on the surrender of civil liberties and throughout the film Hitler appeals to the Aryan myth of glory and idealism. In our post-9/11 world in which the West finds itself fighting an enemy mobilized by a dream of Islamic world domination and while fighting that enemy runs the risk of surrendering the very freedoms that it is attempting to preserve, the relevance of this film ought to be very clear.

Here is a trailer for the film:

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Additional Reviews

As I annouced on today's episode, a few reviews have been added directly to the web because they are no longer playing in the area. They may be broadcast on the show if the films return to the area, but for now they can be accessed in the REVIEWS section of the Maverick at the Movies website. Here are direct links:

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Variety: Writers Call For Strikes

Fri., Nov. 2, 2007

UPDATE: In a last-ditch attempt to avert a strike, the Writers Guild of America will return to the negotiating table Sunday morning to meet with studios and networks.

News of the meeting emerged late Friday afternoon, a few hours after the WGA announced that its 12,000 members will go on strike Monday against studios and networks in the first major work stoppage in two decades.

The 10 a.m. Sunday meeting was called at the behest of federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez.
The strike officially begins at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on Monday. Members began receiving the official announcement at the same time that the WGA was holding a news conference at WGA West headquarters in Los Angeles. The missive said explicitly that all writing covered under guild agreements must cease when the strike starts.

Sunday's talks will be the first since negotiations broke down Wednesday night, a few hours before the WGA contract expired.

WGA West president Patric Verrone opened the news conference by asserting the companies have ignored the Guild's key issues -- new media, Internet re-use, DVDs, jurisdiction -- at a time when entertainment congloms are enjoying financial success.

"Rather than address our members' primary concern, the studios made it clear that they would rather shut down the town than reach a fair and reasonable deal," Verrone said. "This is not an action that anyone takes lightly. But it slowly became apparent that the studios are not prepared to deal fairly with writers and the rest of talent community."

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, blasted back at the guild several hours later. "The WGA's call for a strike is precipitous and irresponsible," he said.

The WGA's expected to mount multiple picket lines Monday. The guild's email to members said, "We'll be sending you information about our picket lines. Come out and show your solidarity. Your Contract Captain will be in touch with you. Be prepared to serve."

The strike announcement followed unanimous approval in meetings of the WGA West board and the WGA East Council. Prospects for a strike became a near-certainty after negotiations collapsed on over the companies' insistence that they won't boost residuals for DVDs or Internet downloads.

WGA leaders had left the door open for talks to avert a strike. Negotiating committee chief John Bowman stressed that guild leaders want to negotiate with the companies this weekend -- as long as the companies will back off their insistence that residuals for DVDs and Internet downloads cannot be increased.

"We have 48 hours," Bowman said. "We don't want to strike. What we really want to do is negotiate."

In comments after the news conference, Bowman expressed frustration that the AMPTP had not discussed new media issues since negotations began in July. He also said guild negotiators were blind-sided Wednesday by the AMPTP's insistence that the home vid formula had to be extended to electronic sell-through.

"If that was going to be their position, then that should have been their proposal in July," Bowman added.

Counter was particularly combative about the WGA in his latest comments, attempting to portray the guild as greedy buy asserting that writers are already well paid as it is. The WGA's seeking to double DVD residuals, which currently pay out at about a nickel per DVD sold.

"The writer is one of our most highly regarded assets and one of our most highly rewarded," he noted. "Working writers on average earn over $200,000 a year. All they have to do is earn $31,000 to qualify for a full year of coverage in the finest health care plan in the country. And they are among the few employees in the world who get an "additional annuity" in the form of residuals beyond their initial compensation."

Counter then noted that WGA West writers made in excess of $56 million in additional compensation last year from DVD residuals.

"It makes absolutely no sense to increase the burden of this additional compensation," he added. "Their DVD proposal would more than double the cost to producers."

Counter reiterated his previous contention that a deal's possible - but only if the WGA relents on DVD and Internet residuals.,

"Instead of working toward solutions that would give the industry the flexibility it needs to meet today's business challenges, the WGA leadership continues to pursue numerous unreasonable proposals that would result in astronomical and unjustified increases in our costs, further restrict our ability to produce, promote and market TV series and films, and prohibit us from experimenting with programming and business models in New Media," he said.

Bowman also acknowledged rumors that the likelihood of a WGA strike has raised the likelihood that the Directors Guild of America will make a deal soon with the AMPTP. He said that even if the DGA did come to a deal with AMPTP on Internet, the writers will not back down.

"The DGA can't make this deal for us," he added. "We won't accept a bad deal."

Bowman also noted that directors are less dependent on residuals than writers.