Looking back six months after the writer's strike

At this time a year ago, the town expected that this summer would see the WGA and SAG together in a long painful strike that would have started around the Fourth of July.

Instead, as everyone knows, the writers cooked up an October Surprise that caught Hollywood off-guard. The WGA struck early rather than late, going out Nov. 5 as last-minute negotiations cratered and staying out for 100 days.

Six months after the strike ended, WGA West president Patric Verrone and WGA East president Michael Winship remain unapologetic. “The strike was necessary to get what we got in the deal vs. what was on the table in October,” Verrone said last week in an interview with Daily Variety.

“Would I rather not have gone on strike?” Winship asked rhetorically. “Yes, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We had no alternative because we had gotten to the point where we weren’t negotiating — all they were doing was saying no — and we had to show them that we were serious about our intentions.”

The timing of the WGA strike, and the attendant loss of a potential one-two punch writers could have delivered simultaneously with actors, has left SAG with little leverage and stalemated negotiations. But Verrone and Winship insist they had little choice but to go early.

Negotiations had launched acrimoniously in July 2007, with the congloms proposing either an extension of the three-year deal in order to study the impact of new media or a revamp of the residuals formula based on the notion that no residuals would be paid until companies recouped basic costs.

Those proposals went over like a lead balloon, with WGA slamming Hollywood accounting and accusing the AMPTP of making good on its threat to impose rollbacks. By late September, with the residuals proposal still on the table, the WGA calculated that waiting for SAG made little sense — given the level of stockpiling that was already going on — and figured that the maximum leverage would come from disrupting the 2007-08 TV season instead.

“We had a negotiating committee that was stocked with a lot of working writers, and it looked as if the companies’ plan was to keep the TV season going right through the hiatus, along with going ahead with a lot of movies,” Verrone recalled. “And at that point, it looked like the DGA and AFTRA would have been willing to go ahead and make a deal. So had we extended, we would have been out on strike with SAG and there would have been plenty of stockpiled material.”

For Winship, it was a fast education. He found out about the new strategy a day after being elected WGA East president.

“I got thrown into the deep end of the pool,” Winship said. “When you’re dealing with an asymmetrical organization like the AMPTP, the element of surprise is enormously important. We also had to deal with the realization that there was an enormous amount of stockpiling going on. There were about 150 movies going into production, and the networks were approving series without pilots. So hindsight being 20-20, it was the right thing to do.”

On Oct. 1, the WGA stunned the town by announcing it was taking a strike authorization vote. It would pass with 93% support.

“I was surprised at how much of a surprise it was,” Verrone admitted, “because it’s very difficult to strategize with that many people involved and not have something get out.”

As during the strike, Verrone remained notably upbeat about how the WGA comported itself. For example, he contended that going out early prevented what might have been a far longer and more painful strike that would have started this summer.

“I do actually think it shortened the strike because the companies were not prepared for us going earlier,” he explained.

And Verrone has no regrets about how the specifics were handled — though he admitted that many members were displeased when, the day before the strike began, the WGA gave up its demand for an increase in DVD residuals. Negotiations collapsed later that night.

“When we dropped DVDs, the idea was that we were showing that we were serious about making a deal — because we’d been told that the companies were too,” he said. “I caught a fair amount of grief for that, but it did show that the companies were not actually prepared to make a deal.”

Winship allowed that he hit a wall at the end of the year after negotiations broke off Dec. 7. “It got pretty bleak during the holidays between Christmas and New Year’s,” he noted. “It didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere.”

But two weeks later, the DGA reached its groundbreaking agreement, spelling out how creatives would be paid in such key areas as paid Internet downloads and Web streaming along with requiring companies to provide a much higher level of disclosure.

After dropping demands for reality and animation jurisdiction, the WGA spent two weeks meeting with the moguls — led by Disney CEO Robert Iger and News Corp.’s Peter Chernin. The deal that the WGA signed on Feb. 10 largely mirrored the DGA deal along with several writer-specific provisions.

Six months later, Winship points to WGA being able to maintain a high level of public support for the strike largely because of the emphasis on the new-media issues. “It was the first labor action about labor of the mind and I think that people were able to understand why that was important,” he adds.

During the hundreds of WGA pickets, the key motivation among participants was that the strike was necessary because of the migration of traditional programming to new media platforms. Six months later, Verrone quips “ask me in 10 years” when questioned as to how that’s played out.

“Actually, what’s happened since then has confirmed our beliefs that there’s a huge amount of re-use and that we’re moving toward the convergence of broadcast, online and cable and that there will be a multiplicity of platforms,” he added.

In concrete terms, here’s what the WGA West reported last month: earnings for writers rose 4% to a record $943 million in the fiscal year ended March 31. Feature work jumped nearly 16% to $502.5 million as studios stockpiled, but TV earnings were hit by the strike, sliding 6.8% to $437.3 million.

Both leaders admit that the business remains as uncertain as ever but stress that writers are used to that.

“As far as I can tell, we’re seeing the same kind of trends as before – declines in daytime and overall TV viewing,” Winship said. “But we’re used to the situation being volatile because we’re freelancers and always looking for the next job, so we expect there to be ups and downs. We’re not seeing any drastic changes.”

Verrone agrees, pointing to strong summers for cable TV and the box office. Additionally, the strike helped writers expand their work in Internet programs such as Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog.”

“You’re always going to have writers out of work but the Internet is now providing the basis for work,” he added. “We are making deals every week on these. That’s sort of the silver lining on the cloud over the nation. And the industry is somewhat recession-proof and all signs point to sustaining a healthy industry.”

Winship’s most potent memory came on Feb. 9, the day the tentative agreement was signed and the WGA East held an awards ceremony that combined celebration, relief and revelry. “It was probably like that when prohibition ended,” he added.

For Verrone, the most memorable moments came at the big events.

“Going into a room with thousands of members in support of what was a very difficult position — at the convention center, at the Fox rally, on Hollywood Boulevard and at the Shrine,” he recalled. “And as I’ve traveled, I see that it’s encouraged other unions to become more active. Usually when I’ve gotten up in front of hundreds of people, they’ve been dressed up as Klingons at Comic-con.”

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