Writers reminded of stinging sixties

WGA strike a flashback to 1960 flashpoints

The Writers Guild is on strike. The Screen Actors Guild is prepping to go out over many of the same issues. Studio chiefs promise “a struggle to the death” and warn that the biz will go under if they accept the guilds’ demands. Guild leaders say they’re fighting for the future. Management says the unions are blinded by their crusade to get a cut of non-existent profits.

Sound familiar?

All of the above could have been plucked from a current issue of Variety, but in fact they come from an era when the Sands hotel in Vegas was taking out ads for the Rat Pack’s perfs, and the touted pics of the day included “Can-Can,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Alamo.”

The titles and players have changed, but 2007 sure feels a lot like 1960.

Ever since the WGA went on strike Nov. 5, the industry has focused on comparisons to the five-month 1988 walkout. But a review of the historical record shows there are just as many, if not more, parallels between today and the WGA’s first industrywide labor action in 1960.

Back then, television was in its relative infancy and the gap between what the Writers Guild thought was fair and what the studios were willing to pay over TV residuals was as wide as the Grand Canyon.

It was a rough time financially for the majors, which were rickety, undercapitalized operations. But actors and screenwriters were demanding residuals on movies made after 1948 that were sold to television, TV scribes’ yearned for heftier residuals, and both the WGA and SAG sought to establish pension and health funds.

“They were telling us that filmed television (shows) were still so new, we don’t know if they’re really going to amount to anything,” says Christopher Knopf, the TV and film writer who served as WGA West prexy from 1965 to ’67. “And on a health and pension plan, management told us it was impossible.”

Complicating matters greatly was the fact that the WGA had separate contracts with the Assn. of Motion Picture Producers and the Alliance of Film & Television Producers, as well as a clutch of indie film producers and indie TV shops.

The most visceral issue for the elite members of the WGA and SAG was the post-1948 pic issue: SAG, the WGA and the Directors Guild had previously come to agreements with the studios that they could not sell post-1948 pics to TV without negotiating a residual plan.

And with only a few exceptions, most of the majors hadn’t cut significant licensing deals for post-’48 pics to the broadcast networks and local TV stations. (The studios were still very wary of the home screen eating away at box office receipts, and talent was wary of being overexposed through movies shown on TV.)

But the potential for a big payday was there — the pages of Daily Variety were full of stories of local TV stations in particular shelling out big bucks to indie outfits for lesser pics — and that was enough to turn the town atwitter.

Strike fever stalked the biz in the winter of 1959 as the key film and TV contract expiration dates of Jan. 15 and Jan. 16, 1960 approached. SAG’s contract would expire in March.

It would be “a most terrible thing” if film companies complied with the guilds’ demands, 20th Century Fox prexy Spyros Skouras asserted in the Dec. 30, 1959, edition of Daily Variety.

When the strike hit on Jan. 16, 1960, the sides did take a stab at talks even after the scribes walked out, with the presidents of the majors — including 20th’s Skouras, Barney Balaban of Paramount, Jack L. Warner of Warner Bros. and Columbia’s Abe Schneider — making a point of requesting separate meetings with SAG and WGA leaders. But those turned out to be more show than substance.

There was a walkout of more than 1,000 WGA West members and for weeks thereafter, the biz fretted about the movies left in limbo, the production of new TV fare for the 1960-61 season, the WGA’s aggressive efforts to enforce its anti-strike-breaking rules, and the rules regarding “hyphen members” of the WGA who were also contracted to provide producing and directing services.

Then as now, the studio lots didn’t immediately grind to a halt, though it was reported that MGM had all of the contract writers’ names removed from the first-floor directory of the studio’s Thalberg Building.

And as the town buzzed about the scribes’ defiance, SAG’s push toward a six-week strike in March-April 1960 began with a meeting of about 100 actors held in early February at the Beverly Hills home of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.

Daily Variety even printed their home phone number on page 1 for RSVP purposes (CRestview 5-0141).

As the WGA walkout wore on, the various sides returned to bargaining in fits and starts, and fits of pique, into the late spring.

There was much dissension among the WGA ranks, between film and TV scribes and between the guild’s negotiating committee and its council of directors.

There were cracks on the studio side as well, most notably when Universal (then in bad financial shape) broke AMPP ranks in February and cut a separate deal with the WGA that acquiesced on the post-’48 issue, granting writers 2% of the producers’ net from each title’s sale, minus a 40% distributor’s fee.

Finally, the big compromise came when the film studios agreed to seed the pension and health fund with a $600,000 “past service” payment for each member with screenwriting credits, in exchange for the guild backing down on the post-’48 pic issue.

Instead, the contract called for screenwriters to get residuals (2% of producers’ net) on pics produced from 1960 on. The deal also called for continuing contributions to the health and pension plan by the studios of up to 5% of a writer’s salary on film or TV work.

On the TV side, Desi Arnaz helped break the impasse.

Arnaz, who with Lucille Ball owned Desilu, one of the town’s top indie TV producers, took out an impassioned full-page ad in Daily Variety on June 1 calling for compromise (he offered to “supply the refreshments” if the talks would get back on track), and shortly thereafter he had a meeting with a handful of officials at his home.

After a few weeks of around-the-clock dickering, TV scribes agreed to a complicated formula that called for them to shift from residuals to a royalty of 4% of a producer’s gross returns on a property. In time, that arrangement would deemed a “disaster” for writers, Knopf recalls, because of creative studio accounting. TV scribes later moved back to a residual system.

Film scribes went back to work June 13, followed by their TV brothers two days later.

So who won the WGA’s first walkout?

By any reasonable measure, round one went to the scribes, who secured a gold-plated pension and health benefits plan that remains top-tier to the present day. (SAG also secured its pension and health plan that year.)

“When we were first talking about the pension plan in 1960, I was 32. What did I care about a pension plan?” Knopf recalls. “There were older, far more successful members who advised us, ‘This is forever,’ and it was worth the fight.

“And when we went out, management told us that writers would never make up our lost income. Well, just counting what we’ve received in health benefits the past 40-something years, I’d say we more than made up for what we lost.”

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