Writers, other hyphenates face tough choices
Once a WGA walkout begins, B.J. Novak — a writer and a star of NBC’s hit comedy “The Office” — will face a very tough choice.
As a card-carrying member of the Writers Guild, he’ll clearly be on strike. But he’s also a thesp and a member of the Screen Actors Guild. NBC’s studio arm has made it clear that it expects Novak the actor to show up to work today, strike or no strike.
Because it has several scribes who also serve as thesps (also including Mindy Kaling and Paul Lieberstein), “The Office” is one of the most visible examples of shows where conflicting interests will be at work once a strike begins. But all over town, a number of WGA members will be facing similarly tough calls.
The vast majority of TV shows are run by producers who double as scribes. The networks are counting on these writer-producers — aka showrunners — to keep things humming on set as work continues on scripts already in the can.
But the WGA has been urging its showrunners to stand down. It held a meeting Saturday at the Sheraton Universal designed to persuade showrunners to stop working immediately. The argument is that the more episodes the nets have in the can, the longer a strike will go.
“The official line on all of our shows is we expect you to show up,” said one senior network executive. “We’ve told them that it’s required under their contracts, and they’ll be in breach if they don’t show up.”
“Showrunners will not show on Monday or all week,” predicted one top exec producer-showrunner. “No one likes to leave a crew unsure of whether or not they have work, or assistants wondering where their next paycheck will come from. And no one wants to leave their baby in someone else’s hands. It’s a difficult time. But I will not cross a picket line.”
Studio and network execs aren’t sure what to expect today.
One studio chief said he doesn’t think the showrunners for his half-hour comedies will be at work today. Indeed, it’s widely expected that all multicamera laffers — including “Back to You,” “Two and a Half Men,” ” ‘Til Death,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” — will shutter production the moment writers strike, since sitcoms require all sorts of rewrites during the course of a production week.
And unlike single-camera shows, in which writers are too busy in the room to drive over to a set and watch an all-day filming, scribes are generally right onstage during a live taping — and frequently huddle between takes in order to come up with snappier dialogue.
By contrast, the same studio topper said he thinks some of his drama showrunners will keep working to finish production on segs already scripted.
“It’s a fascinating position these showrunners are put into,” another studio exec said. “From a pure economics standpoint, if they can provide extra scripts, that’s extra fees for a lot of people who need the money. On the other hand, the more episodes we have, supposedly the less pressure there will be on us. But I would think if I were a writer, I’d get as many scripts into shooting position as possible.”
One drama showrunner conceded that most producers were in a bind, especially those trying to launch new skeins.
“It’s incredibly painful to have episodes being shot that you can not supervise, scripts that will need adjustment that you can’t help and cuts being edited and you’re not in the room shaping,” the producer said. “I’m also worried about what a loss of momentum could do to new shows finding their legs and their audiences. That said, this is bigger than us and may shape the industry for generations to come.”
So what happens if these actors and showrunners decide not to work?
“Whether we’ll pursue legal action will be determined on a case-by-case basis,” one network suit said.
But realistically, it seems hard to believe NBC U would go after “The Office’s” hyphenates or that Warner Bros. would sue Chuck Lorre if they opt not to render acting or producing services once a strike begins.
That’s because Hollywood remains a town built on talent relations. As bitter as things could get with a strike, nobody wants to risk alienating key talent further by insisting they cross picket lines.
That said, nets and studios are also prepared to defend those scribes or actors who incur the wrath of the unions if they do show up for work. If “The Office’s” Novak, for example, gets fined by the WGA, one NBC insider said the company won’t hesitate to fight the fines on behalf of the scribe.