Writers set up picket lines
The chant of the pickets gathered outside Paramount’s iconic main gate said it all: “Why are we standing outside this gate? ‘Cause we got screwed in ’88!”
Hundreds of Writers Guild of America members fanned out across Los Angeles and selected sites in Gotham on Monday morning to serve as the human ammunition for the most fearsome weapon the WGA has in its arsenal: a strike.
As evidenced by the hefty response among scribes of all strata to the guild’s call for picket lines to form outside the major studios, members expressed strong support for the WGA leadership’s decision to shift into strike mode.
Many of those who donned red “united we stand” WGA shirts and hoisted “WGA on strike” signs said they were exasperated by what they view as an intractable stance taken by producers during the three months of negotiations so far on the key issues of DVD and new-media residuals.
“The industry is at a crossroads,” said multihyphenate James L. Brooks, who was among the crowd of more than 100 pickets who circled in front of the main 20th Century Fox studio entrance on Pico Boulevard. “The big question we’re talking about is whether unions are going to share in the future of this business.”
Pickets were out in force outside each of Hollywood’s majors — Disney and Warner Bros. in Burbank; Universal Studios in Universal City; Fox in West L.A.; Paramount in Hollywood; Sony Pictures Entertainment in Culver City; as well as NBC’s Burbank compound, CBS Television City and CBS Radford in Studio City; and a handful of indie studio lots where shows from the struck companies are shot, including Sunset-Gower Studios and Raleigh Studio locations in Hollywood and Manhattan Beach.
WGA West prexy Patric Verrone worked the 9 a.m.-1 p.m. picket shift at CBS Radford, where the strikers also included A-list scribes Phil Rosenthal and Kevin Williamson.
Guild organizers said they intend to have pickets out in force from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday for the duration of the strike. One striker suffered a broken leg shortly before 9:30 a.m. outside of Sunset-Gower Studios after being struck by a man driving a Honda Element as he tried to enter the lot.
Los Angeles Police Dept. spokeswoman Ana Aguirre confirmed that officers from the West Traffic Division responded to the incident but that the driver was not arrested. The incident appeared to be inadvertent, Aguirre said, though she noted that police had received calls about the crowd of strikers being “unruly.”
Many strikers emphasized that decision to go “pencils down” was not a hair-trigger response. The issues of homevid and new-media compensation had been simmering with writers for some time (as reflected in the “screwed in ’88” prose) and through several rounds of contract negotiations.
“This has been a long time in coming,” said screenwriter Lewis Colick (“Ladder 49,” “October Sky”) during a pause in his rounds outside Paramount on Melrose Avenue. “Everybody’s unified and of one mind on the importance of this. We’ve been eating it on residuals for too long. This had to happen, or the (studios) will never do anything.”
The feeling that writers need to dig in and demand an equitable compensation solution for new media was pervasive. Many pickets cited the rapid pace of growth in new-media platforms, where Web streaming of full-length TV episodes has become commonplace for the Big Four networks just within the past year. Strikers fear that writers will be zeroed out of new-media residuals entirely if they don’t fight for them now.
“We’re on the precipice of fundamental change with new media on how people watch movies and TV shows,” said veteran TV writer-producer Barbara Hall, who was among the crowd at Fox. “The time to address this is now, and we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel we’d hit a wall” in the negotiations.
Writer-director Brooks noted that he got a call Monday morning from a senior studio exec, whom he declined to name, voicing support for the writers’ cause. He said he has hope that there are “reasonable people” on the studio side who “have some compassion and concern for the fate of the business” and will eventually help bridge the gap.
J.J. Abrams ranks among the multihyphenates caught in the crossfire of a writers strike hitting just as he’s set to start helming a feature, Par’s “Star Trek” franchise revival that’s set to begin lensing Wednesday. Abrams said he would honor his contractual obligation to work as a director on the pic but would render no writing services. And in his downtime, he plans to spend time on Melrose Avenue joining such chants as “Who’s got more money than they can count? Paramount.”
“If I didn’t stand with my fellow writers, I’d feel it in my gut,” Abrams said.
Strikers marching in the most visible locales received plenty of horn-honking support from drivers whizzing by. The big question has been how many Teamsters-repped drivers will refuse to cross the picket lines as allowed in their union contracts. Alex Burns, a Teamsters driver and 10-year Paramount employee, parked his truck across the street from Par’s Gower Street gate Monday morning. Burns said he would deliver his load to the studio if the pickets moved away from the gate, but he would not cross so long as WGA strikers were physically present.
“I do have a job to do,” Burns said. “But I’m showing solidarity with another union in the hopes that they would do the same when the time comes for us.”
Steve Dayan, organizer for Teamsters Local 399, said he had heard but had not confirmed that “The Office” had been shut down at Chandler Studios and “Cane” had been shut down at CBS Radford. In both cases, Teamster drivers honored picket lines, according to Dayan.
The strike line outside the Disney lot included the stewards of one of the company’s most valuable properties, ABC drama “Lost.”
“Everybody’s a little saddened and surprised and shocked to be out here,” said “Lost” exec producer Damon Lindelof.
Lindelof and fellow “Lost” exec producer Carlton Cuse, a member of the WGA’s contract negotiating committee, said they spent much of the weekend putting the finishing touches on episode eight of “Lost,” submitting the script to the network on Friday and tweaking it over the weekend.
Despite Monday’s feet-on-the-street action, some strikers expressed hope that the two sides will be back at the table soon, even though Sunday’s marathon negotiating session wasn’t productive enough to stave off the start of the strike.
“I think there seemed like a positive moment was there,” said “Mad TV” scribe Brian Bradley, part of the contingent outside Warner Bros. “People are realizing that this is bad for everybody. And I think the producers see us committed. The pencils are down.”
Deborah Blum, a strike captain working at CBS Television City, said she’d been through two past strikes, in 1988 and 1981. A writer for the History Channel series “Mega Disasters,” she observed that all the guild’s strikes have been “triggered by a technological revolution.”
In 1988, Blum said scribes were too quick to give in on sharing profits from videotapes.
“That has been seen as a big mistake,” she said. “We didn’t really look to the future.”
(Josef Adalian and Dave McNary contributed to this report.)