Writers Guild Strike Talks: An Early Primer

The Writers Guild of America contract with Hollywood studios ends October 31, and word of confusing negotiations has begun to reach the public. Sure, there's little reason for people to care, but there's little reason to honestly care how a football team does, either. The difference is a WGA negotiation is more contentious.

(I'm not kidding. A Guild friend, Dennis Foley, once said, "If you gave writers free money, they'd complain that it was the wrong denomination.")

Okay, there is a reason to care if you happen to watch TV or go to movies. It's not anything critical to your life, but negotiations can impact whether next year you'll be watching the new season of Lost or old reruns of Commander-in-Chief.

As a member of the WGA, I understand the importance of the public having a guidebook to follow the action properly. Therefore, it's good to prepare.

1. The two sides will get together, writers will present their demands, and the studios' chief negotiator will say, "No!" and walk away. He will do this for two reasons. A) He has no authority now to say anything but "No!", and B) the studios want to see whether writers will bicker.

2. The writers will bicker. Nothing should be read into this. As noted, writers bicker about everything. You must understand: by profession, a writer sits alone and creates imaginary arguments between characters. Some writers can juggle four sides of an argument without blinking.

3. Both sides will go to the press. Writers will point out that the studios make ungodly profits and screw everyone in sight. Studios will point out how many people will be laid off if writers strike against studios that make ungodly profits and screw everyone in sight.

5. The press will side with the studios. Three reasons. A) They don't have a clue who any of the writers are. B) Studio execs will actually call the press and talk about themselves. Writers won't call the press because they're pissed off at being ignored by them all the time. And C) No reason for the press to tick off an executive because, who knows, they might want to pitch one of their own screenplays to them later.

6. The two sides will get together again. Writers will point out that they make four cents for every DVD sold. Studios will insist that they haven't made a profit on anything since 1944, but that was an accounting mistake because it was a war year. Finally, the studios' chief negotiator will say, "No!," because he still doesn't have any other authority.

7. The Writers Guild will break into three factions. One side will not consider striking even if they were tied to a tractor and dragged naked through the La Brea Tar Pits. Another side believes aliens from Area 51 are conspiring to run the studios, and the only hope for humanity is to strike. The remaining 96 percent of the Guild is interested in a fair settlement.

8. Several production companies will offer to make independent deals with the Writers Guild. But this will fall through when the studios discover it and threaten to have the heads of those companies either killed or lose their power tables at Spago, whichever is worse.

9. There will be layoffs at the studios, as companies cut overhead, for reasons referred to as "belt tightening." These firings will continue even if there is no strike.

10. Writers will threaten vociferously to strike, make booga-booga sounds and look as wild and crazy as people think writers are, because if the other side doesn't think you are crazy enough to strike, they have no reason to settle.

11. The press war will ratchet up. Studios will give the two contradictory claims that A) all writers are filthy rich, and B) all out-of-work writers will strike because they are dirt poor. Writers will note that it is physically impossible for more than 6 percent of WGA members to be employed at any one time, and that out-of-work people strike as a last resort because they actually need the work.

12. Other unions will bemoan a strike, though actually love the WGA being contentious. They know whatever the WGA gets, they'll get too when their own contract is up. (In its entire history, the Directors Guild has only struck once, for about six minutes. Literally. That's not a joke.) Actors and directors don't have to strike -- without them, nothing can be shot. With writers, studios begin stockpiling scripts about three decades ahead. Half of the Producers Guild basement is loaded with unused teleplays for All in the Family and "Bonanza.

13. The two sides will meet yet again. Writers will point out that the studios made record profits. Studios will reply that despite making record profits, they somehow still lost money and actually all went out of business 30 years ago. They will therefore ask writers to take rollbacks in their pay and give up their first-born. Writers will agree to give up their first-born, but not take rollbacks.

14. Writers will prepare picket signs, and show an amazing lack of talent for writing protest slogans. How the brilliant creators of Oscar and Emmy-Winning epics can't come up with anything better than, "Fairness Now!" and "Let My Daddy Work!" will remain one of the great mysteries of life.

15. It will be announced that there is an impasse. Journalists will compete to see who can use the phrase, "Fear spreads throughout Hollywood," the most times. The current record-holder is Charles Granville of Daily Variety, with 3,647, set in 1988.

16. Just before the deadline, members of the Writers Guild negotiating committee will meet in private with powerhouse producers who have actual authority to force a "Yes!," and the basis of a fair deal for both sides will begin to at least be discussed.

17. The deadline will pass.

18. Whenever an agreement is reached - either heading off a long strike, or much later ending one - both sides will express how satisfied they are with the compromise. Neither will be.

During it all, there will always be people who think Writers Are Greedy. There will always be people who think Studios Are Truly Evil About Everything. Then there are the rest, who are smart, sensible and fair, who know that life is complex, that studios are only truly evil about some things, and that there are so many honest issues that always need to be resolved.

As events play themselves out, be sure to have a pencil ready to keep track. Remember, you can't tell the players without a program.

Updates as they occur...