Studio, guild relations growing toxic

Negotiations becoming cause for concern

There’s growing alarm about the toxic relations between management and the talent guilds, and with good reason. The Hollywood community increasingly is taking on some disturbing characteristics of Iraq. There are hints of tribalism where once there was unity, and the rhetoric has taken on a tone that is more messianic than rational.

So the big question is whether the negotiations, like the war, will become both self-destructive and interminable.

Surely the position of the studios wasn’t enhanced last week by the ruling of a U.S. magistrate against New Line (a division of Time Warner). Judge Stephen J. Hillman found that New Line had either destroyed or failed to supply documents demanded by Jackson relating to the profits of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which has sold $3 billion in tickets.

This charge of stonewalling wasn’t exactly reassuring to the Writers Guild, which had just been told to adopt a “trust-me” attitude toward studio bookkeeping. Under the management proposal, the revenue stream would not be divided until the studios reached a certain break-even point — self-defined. If, as the magistrate contended, New Line wouldn’t give the numbers to the imperious Peter Jackson, would a studio be expected to respond to a lowly screenwriter? And won’t this stalemate be exacerbated as new media markets continue to emerge?

To be sure, Warner Bros.’ Barry Meyer has repeatedly complained that his studio must pay residuals on turkeys like “Pluto Nash” that will never realize any profits. The guilds would respond by asking whether Warner Bros. had voluntarily distributed any of its bonanza profits on “300”?

Further, writers are concerned because networks seem to be relying on non-union talent to create new online entertainment; they also believe they’re being shortchanged on downloads of TV episodes. To the networks, all this does not as yet constitute “a business,” while scribes feel they’re being cut off at the digital frontier.

Hence, the reality is that the Writers Guild has issued a shrill battle cry, the studios have threatened a rollback and the Directors Guild, concerned by the angry exchanges, has decided to draw up its own strategy for early negotiations. On the face of things, it looks like the writers want to own the future while the directors want to own the bargaining table.

If neither side budges, the range of possibilities strains the imagination. The WGA could strike, but it runs the risk of defection by some of its loftiest members. Management could try a calculated lockout, but there are strong voices of dissent among the studios and networks, and hard-liners like Barry Meyer may not rule the day.

Thus far there’s been more rhetoric than reason, but deadlines are suddenly approaching. The WGA contract expires Oct. 31, but few expect an immediate strike. The DGA contract expires June 30, the same day as SAG’s, but while the directors habitually work from a carefully crafted script, the actors tend to be far more theatrical in their negotiating strategy.

There was a time when Universal’s fabled Lew Wasserman would sit down with management and then with the Guilds and hammer out a deal. No one today wields Lew’s hammer.

The Universal hierarch surely would be reminding his brethren that Hollywood is living very well at this moment, that the benefits packages are rich and so are the paychecks. A strike or lockout would have catastrophic results on all sectors of the community. The moves and countermoves already being made in anticipation of a strike are causing severe disruptions in the workflow.

Hollywood is too wealthy and well-calibrated to fall into tribalism. I don’t want to face lunch with a studio Shiite. Or even a WGA Sunni.

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