Did WGA strike pay off? Not yet, but…

Verrone says future took longer to arrive then they had thought

Movies tend to occupy center stage at the Writers Guild Awards — proximity to the Oscars dictates as much — but if you want a sense of what’s really going on in the business, pay attention to television.

While directors wield the biggest stick in movies, writers dominate TV. So the relatively sanguine (indeed, pretty woefully boring) nature of Sunday’s ceremony speaks to a certain vibe in the room, and by extension the industry. That included, notably, a few modest rays of hope — an unnatural posture for a group prone to gallows humor.

It’s been four years since the WGA’s 100-day strike, which in its aftermath made the customary guild jokes about getting screwed by major studios or, barring that, talent agencies feel a bit more cutting.

The subsequent peace has been somewhat uneasy, largely because there’s been so little evidence the things for which writers fought and sacrificed — particularly a beachhead in new media, which most closely resembles a next evolution of television into new platforms — are going to pay off.

Even Patric Verrone, the former WGA West president who headed the org during the strike, acknowledged as much Sunday. Backstage after receiving an honorary award, Verrone said in regard to the recent burst of licensing deals for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon et al: “The future took a little bit longer to get here than we thought.”

Frankly, even that sounds premature, despite the recent slew of stories about the Web video explosion, and headlines in the New York Times like “Video Content at the ‘Beginning of the Future.'” As further evidence of their maturation, Web entities are even planning their own alternative to the TV “upfront” presentations this spring, though probably with paper napkins.

Of course, the risk with any strike is whether employee gains will offset their losses — hoping the short-term pain is justified by longterm dividends. Although one can hardly make that case definitively yet — in fact a few guild members and execs have suggested the opposite — there are at least signs, finally, the business is starting to percolate in ways that could validate some key issues over which the strike was waged.

Five years ago, the whole notion of new media represented a considerable leap of faith — and the still-nascent situation isn’t exactly awash in clarity today, either. But the stated goal was to plant a flag in the iceberg’s exposed peak, offering the prospect of new opportunities and fair compensation, without so miring studios and entrepreneurs in red tape as to deter innovation — all without giving away the store, as scribes felt they had in regard to DVD sales.

Despite the crush of coverage and announcements, there’s good reason for lingering skepticism about many of these Web ventures. Don’t be surprised if some companies touting ambitious-sounding production plans quickly retrench after experiencing a few nose-bloodying failures. In addition, a number of programs are made possible through the participation of advertisers, which might hearken back to TV’s infancy but, from a creative perspective, has always been fraught with peril.

Even so, with a proliferation of fairly well-heeled players, like Netflix and Hulu, sticking toes in the original-series waters, talent is seeing a genuine expansion of potential buyers, some armed with comfortably deep pockets. This places writers in the strange position of actually having cause for modest optimism.

Obviously, the strike wasn’t solely about new media, but that became a key symbol — addressing the need to establish “a foothold in the digital age,” as Verrone said when the work stoppage ended four years ago.

At the same time, Times columnist David Carr asked, “The question remains for the writers: Will the piece of future digital revenues they captured be worth the grief endured these past few months?”

Arguably, writers did establish the sort of baseline they sought, but still haven’t reaped much more than pennies, relatively speaking, to offset income lost while picket signs were up and pencils down.

So in response to another query with a certain presidential ring to it — “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” — attempting a formal accounting yields a rather wishy-washy answer.

“Not yet. But maybe — and hopefully. Ask me again in, oh, another four years.”