There have been some truly surreal moments this winter as a byproduct of the writers strike.
We have seen latenight talkshow hosts reciting material they themselves have written — then complaining about its mediocre quality.
We have witnessed high-priced showrunners on picket lines chanting labor slogans dating back to the coal miners in “How Green Was My Valley,” even as they carry signs demanding better breaks on esoteric new-media deals.
We have watched perspiring hosts of celebrity interview shows blurting out the winners’ names at the Golden Globes — an event they’d originally been sent to dish about.
We have been surprised by the strong ratings of reality shows, which had been hastily strung together to replace the scripted shows they were suddenly outperforming.
The upshot of all this: Even before the strike has been settled, Hollywood is trying to cope with the chaos. And the downside of strikes is becoming evident yet again: No one really wins them.
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It is unclear at this point whether the writers or actors will necessarily accept the very healthy deal that the directors have negotiated. Clearly all these artisans are now facing a growing financial crunch as a serious recession is looming. Yet angry and muddle-headed rhetoric still poisons the atmosphere.
In retrospect, it seems bizarre that both sides were spoiling for a fight even as they sat down at the bargaining table. If management was serious about making a deal, why dispatch squads of bureaucrats to the negotiating table, then release toxic pronouncements? The writers, too, were trigger-happy — hence the famous midnight march by the New York writers.
When an industry is caught up in a period of revolutionary change, is that the time for its various individual constituencies to turn against each other? In the case of the directors’ negotiation, small teams of serious grown-ups from each side finally sat down and reasoned together. There was dealmaking, not rhetoric.
Now the pressure switches from the directors to other players. Since their diplomacy succeeded with the directors, Peter Chernin and Bob Iger will likely apply the same techniques to the writers. It is up to the showrunners and other high-profile scribes to press their radicalized colleagues to accept an accommodation. Further, in coming weeks, some top-rung stars plan to throw their weight behind the forces of moderation within SAG.
The lesson of recent weeks is that moderates have lost control of their guilds. The directors’ settlement, and the disasters of winter, may prompt a return to sanity.
Walt Disney, who had his own labor problems, once confided to me that Hollywood was populated by spoiled children — the bosses and their workers. He distrusted both sides equally. I guess I agree with him.