Solidarity with writers shocks studios, WGA

The real value of a good script in this town hinges not on the eloquence of the prose or the cleverness of the plot but in its execution from page to screen. Nobody understands this Hollywood truism better than television showrunners; it’s the challenge they tackle with every week.

As such, it comes as no surprise that these multitasking members of Writers Guild of America should have played such a pivotal role in the first and second acts of the scribe strike of ’07. The determination of a wide swath of showrunners shut the biz down, for all intents and purposes, in a hurry in the first 72 hours after the strike began on Nov. 5. And by many accounts, it was the growing restlessness of many of the same showrunners last week that prodded both the studios and the guild off of their rhetorical high horses to agree to resume formal negotiations on Monday.

“The showrunners were the tip of the spear in this fight,” said a top tenpercenter who’s been piped into the backchannel discussions among scribes, CEOs and top agency partners during the past fortnight of discontent. “They were the ones who got the breach letters and lawsuit threats (from studios) the day after the strike started. They had to deal with their assistants getting fired and their staffs shaken up.”

During act one, as the Oct. 31 expiration of the WGA contract neared and strike fever took hold of Hollywood, the showrunners were seen as key to the situation, in the manner of the military during a coup attempt in a Third World country: As goes the army, so goes the revolution. Certainly during the last WGA strike in 1988, the clout of an elite clutch of TV writer-producers (“showrunner” wasn’t in vogue then) had inordinate sway over both the decision to walk and the move to settle five months later; those with long memories are wondering if history is in the midst of a hastily scheduled rerun.

In hindsight it’s obvious that there was little reason for doubt about which way a majority of TV hyphenates would lean this time around. Their interests are squarely aligned with those of the writers on the two most salient issues for the WGA in these contract talks: securing residual increases for DVD sales and digital distribution of movies and TV segs. It’s no accident that that the head of the WGA West’s 17-member negotiating committee is seasoned showrunner John Bowman. His latest skein, TBS’ latenight sketch comedy “Frank TV,” just debuted on Tuesday

But nobody, not even the WGA leadership, could have predicted the outpouring of clench-fisted solidarity demonstrated by more than 100 showrunners as act two began with the pickets hitting the street on Nov. 5. A meeting of showrunners held at the Universal Hilton hotel two days before the strike commenced — and one day before the last-ditch WGA-studio talks broke down on the night of Nov. 4 — set the tone for the resolve to bring production to a halt as quickly possible.

The sight of guild members with hit shows at stake, e.g., Greg Daniels of “The Office” and Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy,” rising early to demonstrate against their own shows was invigorating to the WGA’s rank and file and unnerving to the senior network and studio execs who are more accustomed to lunching with showrunners than picking them out of picket-line photos. Suddenly, Hollywood became a small town again, with showrunners posting open rally-round-the-cause letters on highly trafficked electronic bulletin boards, and of course, getting quality time in with old friends and colleagues as they made the rounds of the WGA’s 15 designated picket locations.

As much as the guild was buoyed by the fortitude shown by some of its top earners, who dubbed themselves “United Showrunners” and donned custom-made baseball caps to make it official, it became clear that the guild leadership was a little concerned that the muscle flexed by the showrunner faction could conflict with its own agenda vis a vis the talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. That was evident in the guild not explicitly endorsing the idea embraced by some showrunners that they would go back to work to put the finishing producing touches on the episodes left in limbo by the onset of the strike (Daily Variety, Nov. 9).

It’s understood that WGA leaders gently sent the message to showrunners that during a strike, the guild was best served by speaking with one voice. In turn, the showrunners themselves eased off on their intragroup pressure not to do a lick of producing or post-production work while the strike was on. A number of even those who had been the most vocal demonstrators in week one quietly, though not secretly, began working from home or other off-site locations to finish the nonwriting work that remained.

And as some of the showrunners put their heads back in work mode, the collective frustration with the impasse and lack of movement between the guild and the AMPTP mounted. As always, the talent reps for showrunners were supremely attuned to feeling their top clients’ pain. The senior partners of the town’s major agencies had already been trying to play a behind-the-scenes role in bringing the sides back to the table, but as the sniping increased and the strike appeared to be closing out a second week with no new talks skedded, the percentery partners strategized among themselves and redoubled their efforts, resulting in Friday night’s surprise announcement of the Nov. 26 resumption of talks (Daily Variety, Nov. 19).

Given the influential role that showrunners have played in sketching the narrative of the strike so far, it’s tempting to envision some of them spending the Thanksgiving break working out the beats for act three, which begins on Monday.

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