Scribe tribe troubled

WGA West's authority issues cloud talks

Hollywood writers find themselves with a major headache.

The ongoing leadership problems at the WGA West threatens to diminish the guild’s clout at upcoming contract negotiations. WGA members say that should the disunity remain, it will take away the leverage of a credible strike threat as the May 2 contract expiration approaches.

“I don’t see how this can help us,” animation writer Stan Berkowitz said. “But part of the reason why it seems that the WGA is in disarray is that it is a true union and a democracy. It exists only because the writers want it to exist.”

Three weeks ago, WGA West president Victoria Riskin stepped down, as she was ineligible to run last summer. She was replaced by then-VP Charles Holland, who may have fudged some of the details about his military and college football background.

Though guild leaders have remained supportive of Holland, the controversy has been ill-timed for the WGA West and left many of its 8,000 members perplexed. Recent powwows of top Hollywood scribes have reached no consensus as to a course of action.

“Obviously, it’s a cause for concern because you want to have the strongest possible leadership at negotiations,” said Eric Roth, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “Forrest Gump.”

But WGA West board member J.F. Lawton asserted Holland’s situation would not be distraction.

“I don’t think it’s a problem no matter how it’s resolved because we have an extremely strong negotiating team and staff,” he added. “The negotiations were always going to be a big battle anyway, and most of the issues are going to be financial ones.”

The guild, which negotiates as a joint entity with reps from the WGA West and WGA East, has prepped its members during the past year for tough contract negotiations with studios and nets. And it recently received a 97% endorsement from members for an aggressive “pattern of demands.”

Actors offer to talk first

But SAG and AFTRA leaders have offered to start contract negotiations first even though the actors contract doesn’t expire until June 30. The actors unions told the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on Jan. 18 — a day after Holland’s problems were first disclosed — that they would start whenever the AMPTP deemed appropriate.

That decision marked a clear departure from 2001, when SAG and AFTRA leaders said emphatically they would not start until the WGA’s negotiations were completed.

The companies have indicated a clear preference for resolving the SAG-AFTRA contract first, and the schedule for those negotiations is expected to be set this week. Such a step would alleviate fears of an actors strike and take away leverage from the WGA, whose members are perceived as being far more willing than SAG and AFTRA to battle the companies over key issues like DVD residuals and health care.

Once the actors’ contract is out of the way, the threat of a WGA work stoppage would have the biggest initial impact on rewrites of movie scripts, followed by TV series scripts needed for shooting starting in July.

Studios are widely expected to oppose any change in the 20-year-old DVD formula and health care costs are a potentially potent complication, as shown in the bitter three-month Southern California supermarket strike .

Eric Hughes, recruited last summer to run against Riskin, said the uncertainty at the WGA could damage to the guild’s negotiating position.

Trust issues

“If it’s not resolved as quickly as possible, then it will have a negative impact,” Hughes said. “During negotiations, the board is going to want the membership to take it at its word, but that becomes difficult if the leadership hasn’t listened to the members. And it’s absurd for board members to say that it doesn’t matter if Holland wasn’t telling the truth.”

For now, the WGA West board faces a variety of knotty questions:

  • Whether Holland should be replaced as president. WGA West board members have said they don’t believe that the questions about his past matter since they don’t involve his showbiz resume, which includes stints as Fox VP and a “JAG” exec producer.

  • Who would replace Holland, since the WGA West constitution doesn’t address such a scenario. Possibilities include treasurer Patric Verrone and “The West Wing” exec producer John Wells, who served as WGA West president during the 2001 negotiations.

  • Whether the board should fill the VP slot vacated by Holland.

  • Whether a new election should be held as a result of Riskin resigning from the presidency.

  • Whether the board will change how it conducts elections and broadens the information available to members of WGA operations, in light of a possible investigation by the federal government triggered by the complaint from Hughes’ campaign manager Ron Parker that forced Riskin out.

One member said the confusion raises more issues than it resolves because it underlines frustrations with the WGA West bureaucracy.

“The situation with Charles Holland is an example of the larger problem of the WGA not communicating with the membership,” said Craig Warner, who was nominated last week with Peter Pruce for a WGA award for original longform (TNT’s “Caesar”). “I’m not surprised that they haven’t been able to address this issue effectively. There’s an unbelievable level of complacency among staff about dealing with the members.”

Last Thursday, a meeting of some two dozen top writers convened informally with Holland’s resume controversy as Topic A. Insiders present at that meeting say many argued persuasively for his ouster, saying that if his predecessor Riskin stepped aside to avoid becoming a distraction during the negotiations, then so should Holland.

Other writers at that meeting also said that Holland, who graduated from Harvard Law School and is well-respected former studio business affairs exec, brings skill sets that few if any other writers possess.

Said one top writer in attendance, “It think there will be a putsch against Charles, but I also think he will probably survive it.”

But whether or not Holland surwives an internal attack on his presidency may not be cause for handwringing at the WGA, according to one board member.

“People act like this is ‘Braveheart,’ with Charles leading us into battle, said one board member, adding, “While the president is tremendously important, it’s a 17-member negotiating committee, with staff advising it. People need to remember that.”

He added, while acknowleging the possiblity that Holland’s reputation has suffered from the questions, “it’s not as if everything you’ve ever done that’s good in you whole life is washed away by these two (disputed histories).”

(Claude Brodesser contributed to this report.)

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