Past prexy defeats treasurer in close race

Opting for moderation over aggression, Hollywood scribes have returned John Wells to the presidency of the Writers Guild of America West.

The results, announced Friday afternoon, amount to an endorsement by members of a more pragmatic approach following the turbulent four-year tenure of WGA West president Patric Verrone — which culminated in the bitter 100-day strike of 2007-08.

Wells’ victory over Verrone ally and treasurer Elias Davis could mean the WGA West’s negotiating posture will be more measured at the next round of contract talks. Those talks are expected to begin by the end of next year for a successor to the hard-fought existing contract, set to expire in May 2011.

Wells, who garnered 53% of the votes in defeating Davis, had supported the strike but also played a key behind-the-scenes role in pushing for an end to the work stoppage once the Directors Guild of America reached its deal. During a spirited election campaign, he was particularly critical of Verrone’s inability to forge a relationship with the DGA.

Verrone and his Writers United faction have dominated WGA West politics for the past four years, and Wells, who also served as WGA West president in 1999-2001, wasn’t able to persuade WGA West voters to back his slatemates as Howard Michael Gould lost to Verrone ally Tom Schulman for VP. And current VP David Weiss won the treasurer slot over Christopher Keysor, who had been Wells’ choice.

Davis lost by 125 votes. He’d insisted during the campaign that he’d make every effort to avoid a strike in 2011 but he also promised to continue the assertive policies of the WGA leadership during the past four years.

Turnout for the hard-fought election was nearly double the levels of recent years, with about 30% of guild members casting the 2,348 ballots. And Verrone, who was termed out of the presidency after serving two consecutive two-year terms, remains strongly supported within the WGA’s rank-and-file as he drew more votes (1,364) in his race for a board seat than any other candidate in the election.

Board incumbents Howard Rodman and Dan Wilcox were re-elected, along with newbies Linda Burstyn, Billy Ray, Steven Schwartz, Chip Johannessen, Carleton Eastlake and Ian Deitchman. Eastlake and Deitchman finished in a tie at 818 votes for the final slot. Under WGA rules, both Eastlake and Deitchman will be seated on the board.

Wells had supported all nine board winners, while Davis had endorsed all the winners except for Deitchman and Schwartz — both of whom were part of the Wells slate.

“I think we have a very strong board with a good cross-section,” Wells told Daily Variety. “We are facing tremendous challenges with business changing so quickly — and being in danger of going the way of the record business.”

Wells also said he’s looking forward to working with Verrone — “someone who’s done an extraordinary amount of service.” Wells also said he’s particularly concerned about “meat and potato” issues for WGA members such as writers working without compensation.

The election comes with Hollywood scribes feeling the double whammy of the recession and pre-strike stockpiling. Earlier in the summer, the WGA West disclosed that earnings plunged nearly 18% to $801.4 million for the fiscal year ended March 31.

The prexy campaign was marked by hostility over how the strike was handled, though both sides agreed to bury the hatchet a few weeks ago. Verrone and negotiating committee chairman John Bowman told WGA West members in a late-August email blast that Wells had served a counterproductive and unauthorized role in his efforts to push for a deal that would end the strike.

Wells had denied the allegations and sent out a blistering message that disputed Verrone and Bowman’s version of events, saying their missive was a “deliberate and not particularly clever attempt to mischaracterize what I was doing to try and help our cause during the strike.”

Within a few days, both sides had decided they were running the risk of being compared with their endlessly bickering counterparts at the Screen Actors Guild.

The victory by Wells wasn’t a big surprise given that he’s one of the biz’s most prominent TV and film producers and had previously served as WGA West president. He steered the guild through its contentious 2001 contract talks with the majors, which went three days past expiration but ultimately avoided a strike.

Control of the WGA West board shifted abruptly in 2005, when Verrone’s Writers United coalition tapped into a strong sentiment among rank-and-file WGA West members that guild leadership had grown too accommodating of management. Wells’ past regime has been criticized by some members for what they perceived as failures to push hard for gains in DVD, new media and cable TV, among other issues.

The WGA East also announced its results Friday with Michael Winship officially re-elected as president after running unopposed.

Winship, senior writer for “Bill Moyers Journal,” was first elected to a two-year term in September 2007 over Tom Phillips and became part of the WGA’s negotiating team about a month before the guild launched its 100-day strike against the congloms. He was highly visible during the WGA East’s strike activities in New York and Washington, D.C., and has remained unapologetic about the work stoppage — and the WGA’s decision to strike when its contract expired rather than wait for SAG’s contract to run out eight months later.

“Once again, I am honored to have been chosen by the members of the Writers Guild East to serve as their president,” Winship said in a statement. “I thank them for their support. Many of the issues and problems we have addressed over the past two years continue, but within them are opportunities to continue growing our union and to further the interests of Guild East members and writers everywhere.”

Turnout was typically light with 427 ballots cast from a membership of about 4,000.

TV-feature writer Bob Schneider was re-elected to a second term with 230 votes against Phillips with 118 and Ambrose J. Raftery with 39. Gail Lee, a writer-producer at CBS News, was re-elected without opposition to her seventh term as secretary-treasurer.

Incumbents won all nine council seats. Re-elected as freelance members were Susan Kim (273), Pippin Parker (264), Tim Carvell (263), Adam Brooks (257), Melissa Salmons (246) and Courtney Simon (229).

Re-elected as staff members were Phil Pilato (265), Sue Brown (263) and Duane Tollison (260).

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