Although he will cease working as executive director of the Writers Guild of America West as of Sept. 1, Brian Walton will remain involved with the guild as a consultant and will continue to receive an annual salary of almost $370,000 until Jan. 31, 2001.
In addition, the guild’s board of directors late Monday approved a package that gives Walton severance, accrued vacation and sick-day payments totaling $298,450. He will also receive a relocation allowance and assistance with office space and staff.
Given the abrupt manner in which Walton’s 13-year career at WGAW came to an end — the board of directors voted two weeks ago to remove him after the failure of a members’ referendum — guild officers now appear to be bending over backward to treat him kindly.
The board has approved a tribute to Walton that will take place at 8 p.m. Aug. 25 in the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. “All guild members, staff and friends are invited,” a WGAW press release said.
In addition, news of the settlement was accompanied Tuesday with a detailed chronology of the highlights of Walton’s tenure, giving him credit for, among other things, “enhanced member communication,” “organizational improvement” and “economic and benefit growth for writers.”
And Walton, usually reluctant to speak with reporters, made his way to the Daily Variety newsroom for an interview in which he said he would “miss the guild tremendously.”
Walton was bounced from his job after the defeat of a referendum in which just 21% of the membership voted. The referendum included seven items about the guild’s strategic goals — improving residuals and the creative status of writers, for instance — and two questions related to Walton’s employment contract, which was to expire in May 2002. But the vote became, in effect, a poll of members’ feelings about Walton, a sometimes controversial figure who alienated some people by his insistence on collective bargaining that did not involve the threat of strikes. “I was surprised at the way it came down,” Walton said. Still, he added, the board knew going in that his ouster was a possibility.
To those who charged that the referendum was unnecessary, Walton countered that the divisions within the guild, especially since the defeat of a new contract last fall, made it crucial for the board to have a clear picture of what the members wanted.
“We wanted to clear the air,” he said. “I guess we didn’t.”
He said there are two competing philosophies at work within the WGAW membership: on the one hand, those who see the guild’s mission as advancing the cause of writers and, on the other, those who want to use the guild’s power purely for “confrontational collective bargaining.”
Leaving the guild, Walton said, leaves him “with a mixture of emotions.”
“I love the guild. I respect writers. I’m going to miss it tremendously, no question. I have lived and breathed the guild for 13 years.”
Nevertheless, Walton has not lost his sense of humor. “My guess,” he said, “is that there’s a car wash out there that’ll have me.”
There is at least one benefit to his departure, he said. “It’ll do away with this ridiculous myth that I dominate the guild. I’m not indispensable. No one is.”
George Kirgo, who was president of the WGAW in 1987-91, said Walton is “an asset that the guild will be hard put to replace.”
“He was as dedicated to writers as anyone I’ve ever known,” Kirgo said. “He was truly the Writers Guild slave. He was an incredible workaholic. He expanded the boundaries of our possibilities, both economically and creatively.”
Kirgo said that in putting together the referendum, it was not the board members’ intent to have Walton leave. “They were shocked at the result,” he said.
Board member Ann Marcus, who has had her differences with Walton in the past, felt at peace with the outcome.
“Brian’s had a marvelous 13-year run at a job he relished,” she said. “He did it well for the most part, and other things he didn’t do so well. He should feel good about what he’s done and certainly about his separation. I think it’s fair.”