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Studios seem stymied by creatives’ requests

D FOR RESULTS, A FOR CIVILITY.

That would be the report card to date on the talks between writers and management. After six weeks of negotiations, the two sides are far apart on numbers, but everyone’s being terribly nice about it.

“Think of this as a football game and we’re at halftime,” says John McLean, the chief negotiator for the Writers Guild, explaining why talks have broken off.

While everyone’s holding to the tone of civility, the whole town’s biting its nails. If the writers walk, the actors probably will follow, and that means the studios shut down, the networks shift to a steady diet of reality shows and Hollywood becomes a ghost town. So why is everyone being so goddamn polite?

For insight, I dropped by the writers’ “town hall” meeting March 6 at a hotel ballroom near Universal Studios. The place was packed and the tone was — well, very civil.

I actually had a right to attend, since I’m a Writers Guild member. Many years ago I wrote and sold two screenplays before coming to the realization that writing scripts was, for me, abject torture. The advantage of writing columns or novels, I found, was that no one could hand you script notes or complain about your character arc.

Hence, I have great admiration for people who write for TV and movies. They have more patience than I. They’re also more civil, as I was reminded at the meeting.

Writers Guild sessions of a decade or so ago were dominated by fiery rhetoric from silver-maned old lefties who denounced management and demanded worker solidarity.

These voices weren’t heard at last week’s meeting. Those addressing the audience looked and sounded more like management than management. Indeed, guild officers took greatest umbrage over a chance remark attributed to Nicholas Counter III, management’s negotiator, who asserted that guild officers “don’t understand the economics of the entertainment industry.”

How dare he! The guild principals indignantly ticked off their credentials — Harvard MBAs, law degrees, years of corporate service. Their chief negotiator, McLean, logged in 25 years for CBS while Robert Hadl, their legal guru, once sat at Lew Wasserman’s elbow.

No wonder the old lefties were silent. And the presence of John Wells, presiding over this occasion, only compounded the ambiguities. Wells’ service as a producer, writer and director of movies and TV, earns him between $35 million and $50 million a year, which is a helluva lot more than any of the CEOs against whom he’s negotiating. At those numbers, I’d declare my solidarity any time.

BUT IT SEEMS TO ME THE STUDIOS and networks have a blind spot about all this. To the multinational corporations that own Hollywood, writers and directors are artisans whom you hire and fire like household help. If they ask for a raise, toss them a bone.

I don’t think so. Sure, in years past the writing community consisted of grizzled newsmen like Ben Hecht or starving novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald looking for a quick payday. They were the working stiffs, ever grateful to be invited on the set.

Today’s writers, as evidenced at the WGA Town Hall, are well-paid, well-educated professionals who chose their calling in part because of the financial opportunities it afforded. Sure, some may struggle to pay their mortgages, but others are privileged and powerful. They don’t think like employees, so management had better stop treating them as such.

The tone of civility may thus end in a thunderclap of indignation unless management comes through at the 11th hour with some intelligent compromises. Given the semi-recession, Wells and McLean don’t expect their full demands to be met, but they have a right to expect an accommodation.

Meanwhile, the multinationals would do well to devise some long-term structural solutions to their dilemma. Corporate leviathans such as AOL Time Warner, Vivendi Universal and News Corp. still must prove they can successfully navigate in the creative community. The curmudgeonly studios of old were extremely generous with their Hollywood families, and in crunch times elicited great cooperation in return. They also were sufficiently undercapitalized that they were able to bargain with impunity.

Today’s multinationals can plead thin profit margins but can hardly plead poverty. To successfully negotiate with the creative community, they may ultimately find it tactically prudent to break themselves down into smaller units, with meaningful incentives distributed to talent in the form of participations or even stock options.

At the moment, however, it’s half-time, as John McLean says. A tense halftime, at that.

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