Brian Walton’s 13-year tenure as executive director of the Writers Guild of America West is over.
The guild’s board of directors voted late Wednesday to let Walton go and to negotiate a severance package. Walton, who makes almost $400,000 a year, was out of town on a previously scheduled vacation, according to a guild spokeswoman, and did not attend the meeting.
Walton’s termination was described in a WGA statement as having come about “by mutual agreement,” although it was not clear how that squared with a 13-4 vote against him. There was one abstention, and another board member was absent.
The statement released Thursday said the board had voted “with the utmost reluctance and regret” to terminate Walton’s employment contract “as expeditiously as possible.”
“Every single member of the board expressed, in one way or another, very high praise for Brian Walton,” said the statement, signed by WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr. “All members of the board expressed great regret over this action.”
The board’s vote followed the narrow rejection last week of a referendum that focused on the guild’s strategic goals, but which also addressed Walton’s employment contract, which expires in May 2002. The referendum included a measure that would have changed Walton’s “early termination” option from May 2000 to May 2001.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the proposed extension was to relieve Walton of the need to negotiate a new contract for himself while at the same time negotiating increased residuals for guild members.
However, some members complained that appending the Walton questions to a series of self-evident goals meant the guild was trying to finesse Walton’s continued employment. And since an issue involving the exec director’s tenure had never before been presented to the membership for a vote, the referendum effectively became a critique of Walton’s performance.
Painted into corner
To make matters worse, Petrie had vowed before the referendum — unnecessarily, some board members believe — that a defeat would force a search for a new exec director. Thus painted into a corner, Petrie had no choice but to recommend Walton’s termination.
“It’s an amazing set of circumstances,” said Lynn Roth, who is running for a seat on the board in next month’s elections. “If they hadn’t had that referendum, Walton would probably still have his job. There is a great irony in the fact that the people to whom he felt the most loyalty were ultimately responsible for his demise. It should have been more thoroughly thought out.”
A small number of board members opposed holding the referendum at all on the grounds that it sought to preempt any action on Walton’s contract by future boards. Some proposed doing nothing until after the Sept. 17 election. Now, a committee composed of John Wells, Chris Knopf, Bruce Joel Rubin, Tom Schulman and Petrie will oversee negotiations over Walton’s settlement package.
He will remain in office until a settlement is reached, at which time a three-person committee — Paul Nawrocki, Ann Widdifield and Grace Reiner — will assume the exec director’s responsibilities until a replacement for Walton is found.
Led many battles
As the WGAW’s top executive and chief negotiator, Walton was at the forefront not only of battles with studios and producers, but with the guild’s Eastern counterpart, with which relations have generally been anything but cordial.
The London-born Walton, 50, received a law degree from the University of Utah College of Law and was in private practice in Los Angeles from 1974 until 1985, when he was hired by the WGAW.
Once in office, he came to be respected more for his knowledge and experience than for his communication skills. He tends to address issues in a formal, lawyerly manner and has difficulty shifting to a more relaxed demeanor. His many confrontations have left him somewhat battle-hardened, according to those who know him.
Irritated as Walton was by the constant divisiveness of the WGA, he nonetheless was devoted to the writers’ cause; indeed, during his tenure at the guild he married a working writer. Walton rarely met or spoke with reporters and seemed timorous about taking his case to the press, even when it was apparent that his job was on the line. At the same time, he bridled over what he deemed unfair coverage that tended to emphasize fissures within the guild.
’10 years of labor peace’
Recalling the aftermath of the five-month writers’ strike in 1988, Petrie said Walton created “a new method of bargaining that has resulted in 10 years of labor peace in Hollywood.”
But Roth and others running for the new board oppose Walton’s Contract Adjustment Committee, which embarks on negotiations months before a contract’s expiration. Critics complained that the committee too strictly limits the number of bargaining proposals and dilutes the union’s traditional strength of negotiating under the looming threat of a strike.
“They talk about 10 years of labor peace, but in those 10 years our cable and foreign residuals have fallen so drastically low that we’re going to find a way to remedy that gross unfairness,” said Roth, who advocates a return to so-called traditional negotiating.
Although Walton, she said, is an intelligent man who was effective in promoting the cause of writers in Washington, “it is difficult for him to be as confrontational with management as many writers would like him to be.”
David Rintels, a former WGAW president who is also running for the board as a pro-traditional negotiations candidate, described Walton as “an extremely talented man who worked tirelessly for writers’ interests for 13 years.”
“I wish him well,” Rintels said. “All writers will.”
Brad Radnitz, another former president of the guild running for election, called it “foolish” for the present board to have tried to mask Walton’s contract issues under a “seven-item agenda that was tantamount to approval of mom and apple pie.”
In any event, he said, the membership “made the right choice” in rejecting the referendum, which failed by six percentage points. “I would be hesitant to send a man out to negotiate for me with that kind of approval rating,” Radnitz said.
Victoria Riskin, a board member who voted against Walton’s departure, said she did not believe the membership “understood that they were voting with the possibility that Brian would consider leaving.”
She said the questions were not presented as a vote of confidence in Walton, whom she described as having given “tremendous energy, talent and devotion” to his duties as exec director.
Joining Riskin in voting against settling Walton’s contract were Amy Holden Jones, Irma Kalish and Callie Khouri. Those voting to dismiss him were Petrie, vice president John Wells, secretary-treasurer Michael Mahern, and David Balkan, Terry Curtis Fox, Josh Friedman, Brenda Lilly, Don M. Mankiewicz, Ann Marcus, Charles Edward Pogue, John Riley, Jim Staahl and Greg Strangis.
Carl Gottlieb abstained, and Scott Alexander was out of the country.