Notes from the Shrine: The Big WGA Meeting

Back from the big general WGA membership meeting to discuss the proposed new contract. It was held at the Shrine auditorium, which was the perfect venue because (a) it's large enough to accommodate the entire guild...along with the 5th Army, (b) most writers spend their Saturday nights in downtown Los Angeles anyway, (c) it's close to historic Felix Chevrolet on the "big cat corner" of Figueroa & Jefferson, and (d) it's the site of the American Music Awards.

The turnout was excellent. Estimated at 3,500. CAA was not present handing out churros but all writers were given colored wrist bands and if you got a green one you were entitled to a free lap dance. I didn't see Larry Gelbart or Frank Pierson but I did see Diablo Cody. There were also beefy security guards. Where were they during negotiations? Outside were disappointed photographers and film crews. Who the hell cares to see writers at a writers meeting? Where were the actors???

I didn't know what to expect with this briefing. Similar meetings in past strikes have turned very contentious. Those security brutes might be needed. The pattern was usually this: the president and board spend the first hour selling the deal. The vibe is positive. Then the floor is opened for questions. Here's where the mood turns. The first few queries are polite. Then about fifteen minutes in the first F-bomb is dropped. The questions get angrier and writers begin listing their credits (as if it gives their opinions more weight 'cause they wrote six episodes of The Twilight Zone).

The membership gets rowdy, the negotiating committee is under siege, and the whole thing turns real ugly.

Since a number of writers had issues with the current deal on the table I wondered if this would become a repeat of "Hollywood Palladium 1981, 1985, and 1985 part two". Happily, it was not.

From the introduction of the negotiating committee there were standing ovations. It was like a Tony Bennett concert. There was even an enthusiastic standing O for the actors. When have writers ever in the history of man done that?

A major concern was addressed right off the bat. Members feared this deal was being rammed down their throats at the AMPTP's insistence. Was the board going to vote to end the strike on Sunday before members had the chance to vote? WGA president Patric Verrone assured us that no, in an accelerated process writers would vote within 48 hours of the board meeting. So at the earliest, the strike would be over by Wednesday not Monday. That still would salvage the TV season and the Oscars. Joan Rivers is breathing easier today.

The main points of the deal are that it gives writers jurisdiction over new media and a share of distributor's gross, which is hugely significant since any other formula is just monkey points. By establishing precedents the guild believes it is now in position to share the revenue from emerging marketplaces such as the internet. The deal is hardly perfect. There are a number of holes (which the committee candidly acknowledged) but considering we were negotiating against mega conglomerates who would just as soon break the union, this deal is at least a start and livable.

Chief negotiator David Young laid out the deal. Noting that his background was in the garment industry, a writer near me said one of the concessions we got was that doors would remain unlocked during business hours.

About an hour in Patric Verrone was handed a note and announced that someone was live blogging and would they please stop it. I was worried that everyone would look to me, and I would have to say, "Hey, guys. I don't even know how to text message." Rumor has it the culprit was some clown from the LA TIMES.

Lots of people lined up for questions, but they were primarily seeking clarification of specific deal points. And no one shared their credits. I have to be honest. The sound system in that cavernous barn was horrible and I couldn't hear half of what anyone was saying. And numbers and formulas were flying around and after a half hour my head was ready to explode. I decided it was time to leave. It was pretty clear that the membership is behind this deal and if I got out before 11 I'd miss any street gang drive-bys.

So peace and harmony could return to Hollywood as soon as Wednesday. And will last all the way to June. Let's hope SAG is able to make their deal without another work stoppage. But if there is, I'll be the first to grab a sign and join their picket line. I doubt if the AMPTP would give a shit but the photographers and news crews would be pissed because I'm blocking actors.

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