This was a traumatic week in Hollywood: People actually had to get back to work.
Writers had to overcome the fact that picketing was more fun than writing. Showrunners had to come to terms with the reality that their luscious overall deals might not be reactivated. Spouses recaptured their homes and sent their mates back to the office where they belong.
According to Patric Verrone, the work stoppage arguably represented the labor movement’s “most important strike of this young century” (of course, he led the strike). Less impassioned observers, however, were still trying to balance gains against costs. The writers gained a toehold in revenues from the new media but, in so doing, also lost jobs in the old. Scribes who had wallowed in their solidarity now faced unpaid bills and back alimony.
To the ever cranky Michael Wolff, writing in Vanity Fair, the strike proved that Hollywood was no longer “the coolest place, the ruler of the Zeitgeist … It’s just a bunch of crabby managers and a sullen workforce in a dysfunctional relationship with a declining industry, quarreling over an ever smaller piece of the pie.” (Of course, Wolff hasn’t sold a script, or tried to, in a long time so he has reason to be sullen.)
One of the abiding signs of this dysfunctionality is the disdain the various talent guilds show for one another. Writers hate directors; hence the writers insist their macho tactics brought the industry to its knees. Talk to the mavens at the Directors Guild and you get another story: They believe their deal paved the way for the writers and that the showrunners ended up paying the tab for the strike in lost wages and percentages (not to mention the impact on the ordinary grip or caterer).
Now along come the actors exhibiting their own form of dysfunctionality. Even as SAG leaders started strutting toward their moment in the sun, a major insurrection seemed to be brewing last week. Several top stars (including Clooney, Streep, De Niro and Hanks) demanded that the bargaining start sooner rather than later. And petitions started circulating that proposed the ultimate heresy: Namely, that only working actors be allowed to vote on a potential strike action.
If Hollywood found all this distracting, consumers were exhibiting their distraction on another level. While the writers were toting picket signs these past three months, viewers were busily surfing the Web, buying more DVDs, playing more videogames, watching more online videos and otherwise finding new ways of being entertained.
As though in response, broadcast network executives were weighing new spending constraints, backing off pricey talent deals and reassessing budgets for pilots.
The reasonable observer might ask: Does all this really bode well for talent? Won’t Michael Wolff’s “crabby managers” become even more crabby?
Even as the Writers Guild board formally approved its new deal last week, Hollywood nonetheless admired the ability of the Guild to mobilize such formidable solidarity behind its goals. Its key weapon, to be sure, was to infuse a heavy dose of working-class ideology into its tactical lexicon.
Its strike didn’t just pit writers against producers; this was really a battle of the working man against corporate greed — all this despite the fact that some of the strikers had greater financial heft than the corporate apparatchiks they were negotiating against. Ironically, the company decision makers basically grew up as middle-class guys whose parents had been union members.
Given this ideological tilt, the media struggled mightily to provide objective coverage. Most reporters identified with the writers (they are, in some cases, themselves writers).
While this bias was occasionally discernible, the mainstream media by and large exhibited remarkable restraint compared with the shrill cacophony emanating from the blogosphere. The bloggers seemed to be the ideological spear carriers for the Writers Guild, blotting out voices of restraint.
But now it’s time to get back to work. Bills must be paid, shows must be cranked up and movies reslotted. That is, unless the actors decide that they, too, want to uphold the banner of the “sullen workforce” described by Michael Wolff.
After all, dysfunctionality has its lure.