Can the Guilds achieve their agenda?

As a member of the Writers Guild, I received my ominous-looking green “ballot” the other day requesting a “yes” or “no” vote for its “pattern of demands.” The Guild is girding for approaching negotiations with the studios and it clearly wants its members to rally around the flag.

Talk to random writers around town, and you come away with the sense that Hollywood scribes have indeed decided what it is they want the most.

They want more.

More money, more control, more of the backend pie.

Writers want more of it all and, to that end, they’re not only advancing their Guild demands, they’re also forming a range of new entities with rather adventuresome business plans. Part of their objective is to win an exponentially improved cut of future digital paydays, but part, too, is a “power surge”: They want a bigger role in the creative decisionmaking. And, like President Bush, they’re impatient about talk of “benchmarks.”

To be sure, writers have always been a restless lot — I remember old Samuel Goldwyn once telling me, “Why can’t writers just write, directors just direct and actors just act?” Even in Goldwyn’s era, that seemed like an impossible goal.

The two big questions about the writers’ “surge,” however, are these: Do they have the muscle to achieve their agenda? And do they have the savvy to run their prospective new companies?

Even though I’m a Guild member (I think I belong to just about every guild except craft services), I’m skeptical. Not because I’m rooting against writers, but because I think that most writers, when it comes down to it, are really committed to writing, not negotiating.

Two new entities seem to be coming together aimed at proving me wrong. One, a sort of writers’ co-op, is being formed by the estimable John Wells and involves the likes of Scott Frank, Ed Solomon and Richard LaGravanese.

A second, flying under the mysterious banner of “1. 3. 9,” involves Christopher McQuarrie, John Ridley and Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal.

As reported in these pages by Variety‘s Michael Fleming, these ventures are being crafted to generate scripts at reduced upfront cost, with the writers retaining ownership of their properties as well as a piece of the gross if and when their films get released.

McQuarrie (who wrote “The Usual Suspects” and “Valkyrie”) believes that stars will link up with his company as a means of propelling their personal “dream projects” through the balky development process. Studio development, he argues, effectively keeps actors and writers at arms length — a practice he and his colleagues are determined to overcome.

Given the bountiful deals being advanced to stars by studios and equity funding groups, however, I’m not quite sure why McQuarrie believes his group will gain much leverage on the Hollywood battlefield. I’ve talked with at least two top-level agents recently who insist that their biggest problem was not finding good material, but rather persuading their superstar clients to do their homework and read the scripts being offered them. “They’re too rich and too busy,” said one.

Further, a curious evanescence always seems to haunt so-called “dream projects.” I’ve personally worked with stars whose passion for a particular subject instantly melted when they received a bigger payday with a star director attached.

Writers, too, are hardly immune from this syndrome: The commitments of top writers tend to vaporize when a $350,000-per-week rewrite magically appears. Suddenly, “Spider-Man 4″ becomes more intriguing than that adaptation of a long-forgotten Eugene O’Neill play.

The studios aren’t much help either. They’re rebelling against deals that have long lists of gross participants — stars, directors, managers, co-financiers, etc., and they’re not inviting writers to join the list.

Still, there’s no denying that writers are important players in the Hollywood pantheon, and their demands will have to be addressed in one form or another. Patric Verrone, the erudite president of the Writers Guild, is preparing to run for a second two-year term and he’s already been vastly more confrontational than his recent predecessors. Mindful of the town’s listlessness, Verrone feels this is the time to forge unity among writers and to increase the Guild’s muscle by organizing scribes working in sectors like reality programming, animation and cable.

One of Verrone’s rallying cries is to gain appropriate participation for writers creating work for the Web, mobile phones and other digital platforms of the future.

And because the future is already upon us, Verrone isn’t fretting about whether his fellow scribes are getting a big enough bite of the gross. He’s worried whether they’ll get paid at all for the use and re-use of their material on emerging platforms.

You’ve got to ‘get real’ before you can ‘get rich,’ Verrone seems to be saying, which surely is the subtext of that ominous-looking green card carrying the “pattern of demands.”

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