Stop me if you’ve heard this before: After months of sniping, film and TV writers go on strike, determined to get their fair share of the coin brought in by their prose. They picket by the thousands, joined by smallscreen stars. Dave and the rest of the latenight gang avoid crossing the line. So far, the 2007 writers strike is unfolding in patterns that resemble those of the 1988 work stoppage. That earlier strike delayed the start of the fall TV season and cost Hollywood an estimated $500 million by the time it was resolved 22 weeks later. Some credit or blame it for the shift toward cable and advent of reality TV.
Does that mean the current strike will last as long or be as disruptive? Of course not. But the road to resolution could be a long one, and a look back at the 1988 stoppage provides a glimpse of possible twists and turns along the way.
Back then, as now, residuals were at the heart of the impasse. Goaded by homevideo concessions they made in ending their brief 1985 walkout and the profits that studios were posting while bemoaning rising costs to the guilds, scribes were determined to hold their ground.
This was, after all, during the “greed is good” era popularized by late 1987 release “Wall Street,” ads for which appeared in Daily Variety as part of the film’s Academy Awards campaign alongside early strike coverage.
The homevid boom was well under way, though mostly geared toward the rental market. With memories of that concession fresh in their memory, scribes had their eye on another growth area: foreign TV sales. They were booming and expected to keep rising as TV networks proliferated across Europe.
Cut to 2007. The homevid market has stalled around $24 billion, and scribes are more determined than ever to avoid making a similar mistake with digital delivery in its nascent phase.
It doesn’t help that studios and networks — now married, via a series of studio/network mergers that took place in the 1990s, into even mightier congloms — regularly boast to Wall Street about the revenue potential of new media. Savvy scribes have created YouTube clips juxtaposing those remarks with others in which management declares its position that the technologies are too nascent — and too uncertain — to share the revenue generated with scribes.
During the previous stoppage, WGA leaders made a point of educating scribes about the stakes during the period leading up to the Feb. 29 contract deadline. When the AMPTP made its supposedly final offer, they were unimpressed by residual terms for syndicated hourlong dramas and foreign resides.
Members almost unanimously voted to strike, authorizing it by an even greater margin than the 90% current guild members provided last month. By March 7, 1988, the strike was on.
Even without the Internet as a conduit allowing writers to vent their grievances, the fallout and rancor was immediate. Two days into the stoppage, Daily Variety reported the delay of a couple late-season skeins and the guild’s decision to deny waivers to scribes for the April 11 Oscarcast.
One day later, talks had collapsed. They wouldn’t resume for five weeks.
Then, as now, Nicholas Counter was the chief negotiator of the AMPTP.
Thesps, crew and support staff soon felt the pain of the strike. Three weeks in, the AMPTP pegged the cost to nonscribes at $4 million, basing the figures on the cancellation of 20-22 episodes of primetime. Org also told Daily Variety that 125 secretaries and clerical workers had been laid off. Shows such as “Moonlighting,” “L.A. Law” and “thirtysomething” had to end their seasons early; the forced hiatus would be blamed for contributing to the ultimate demise of “Moonlighting.”
By comparison, the Get Back in That Room blog tracking the current strike has already tallied more than 400 grips, costumers, assistants and other below-the-line staffers that have lost their gigs in the two-week-old stoppage. Pinkslips have been flying on skeins including “Saturday Night Live,” and high-profile pics like “Angels & Demons” have been delayed.
This time around, however, the film and TV factions of the scribe tribe are showing greater unity in the early going due to their shared stake in new media and DVD residuals, the two main sticking points in the current contract negotiations. TV skeins are already being streamed and downloaded, and pics are expected to follow suit.
When the AMPTP and WGA finally returned to the bargaining table during the ’88 strike, they went just 22 minutes before talks broke down. The impasse over hourlong residuals was tricky to overcome because the writers were asking for better terms than the DGA, and the AMPTP didn’t want to give that to them.
The guild had been resisting entreaties to form independent pacts but grudgingly granted waivers to the Ivan Reitman Co. and the Smothers brothers in mid-April due to special circumstances. It eventually signed interim contracts with more than 150 independent companies, allowing scribes on skeins like “The Cosby Show” and “Alf” to work.
Johnny Carson tried to negotiate an interim pact but eventually gave up and decided to return to the air in mid-May — delivering his own monologue, without writers — becoming the first latenight host to do so. Dave Letterman followed more than a month later. Non-union scribes had already returned to work on sudsers like “Santa Barbara.”
By June, some three months into the strike, the battle started to get ugly. The AMPTP threatened to withdraw pension support after negotiations broke down once again on the residual issue. Cracks in the guild’s united front began to appear. And webheads, already facing a delayed fall TV season, openly discussed workaround solutions as the strike continued.
Topper Brandon Tartikoff said his Peacock net would remake “The Hardy Boys” in a strategy he called “American Revival.” ABC chief Brandon Stoddard said the Alphabet would reshoot old scripts of “Mission: Impossible” in Australia. And CBS readied “Jake’s Journey,” a previously rejected pilot, and “Dolphin Bay.” ABC also pushed up the bow of mini “War and Remembrance” to fill the void. British scribes were tapped to pen scripts of nighttime sudsers “Dallas” and “Knots Landing.”
Networks avoided using producers with interim agreements, however. So the guild sued the AMPTP on antitrust grounds.
Not to be outdone, dissident members of the WGA filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the guild of unlawful restriction of trade with regard to those who wished to resign from the union and get back to work.
It wasn’t until late July, almost five months into the strike, that the guild and AMPTP inched closer to rapprochement on the residuals issue. The two sides finally brokered a tentative agreement on day 150 of the walkout.
On Aug. 7, scribes overwhelmingly approved the new contract.
The walkout was the longest in the guild’s history.
The WGA gained some ground on the residuals front in the form of a sliding formula tied to the success of domestic and foreign residuals, and the first formula for made-for-cable programs. But, as observers were quick to point out, the sliding nature of the new domestic and foreign residual formulas could mean half the coin for scribes in some cases. Studio execs weren’t that thrilled with the denouement, either, calling the negotiation process archaic and outdated.
“The only good thing which came out of it is, if the industry realizes it, it should never happen again,” MGM TV prexy David Gerber told Daily Variety when the tentative accord was finally reached. “It was strictly genocidal.”