Hollywood writers and producers made a last-ditch effort yesterday to avert a strike that could throw the entertainment industry into chaos for months.
With just 24 hours left on the current Writers Guild contract, the two sides sat down – along with a federal mediation team – for a final round of contract negotiations in an atmosphere of barely concealed contempt and open acrimony. Almost nobody in the industry is giving them much chance of success.
The writers have accused the producers of cutting them out of profit participation on DVDs, internet streaming and other new media. The producers, meanwhile, accuse the writers of being as inflexible as petulant children and say they are tired of offering concessions only to see them rejected out of hand.
Nick Counter, the head of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, has decried the last three months of contract negotiations as "the most futile attempt at bargaining that anyone... has encountered in guild negotiation history".
The Writers Guild, meanwhile, says the producers are not interested in offering them a meaningful deal on new media, only in making cosmetic changes to a fundamentally unfair contract proposal.
"Every new technology or genre, instead of being treated as a new opportunity for mutual growth and benefit, is presented to us as some unfathomable obstacle that requires flexibility from writers – meaning a cheap deal that remains in place," David Young, executive director of the guild's West Coast branch, told the producers in a written statement. "This happened with home video. It happened with basic cable. It has happened with Reality TV. Now you want it to happen with new media and the internet."
All evidence suggests both sides are right, in their own way. The producers acknowledge they are not ready to offer writers fixed royalties – known in the business as residuals – on new media, arguing that they need the extra revenue to make up for rapidly increasing production and marketing costs.
The writers, for their part, have embraced a new militancy unseen since the last Hollywood writers' strike in 1988 – when they walked out for 22 weeks only to see the traditional network-based television market shrivel drastically and a new, much less regulated world of cable and reality television take its place.
The writers are almost certainly right to say they are being cut out of compensation that is rightfully theirs. Their members voted overwhelmingly last week to allow the guild to authorise a strike as and when it sees fit. But they have also objected to just about everything – from the seating arrangement at last Friday's negotiating session to the producers' decision to take a three-day break over the weekend – which they saw as a ploy by the producers to try to ram through a last-minute, cheapskate offer.
"This sort of brinkmanship will likely be met by fear, confusion and even acrimony," the guild's West Coast president Patric Verrone warned. "We must be strong and steadfast in our convictions so that we convey the proper message to our employers, to our allies in the entertainment community, to the industry at large and to each other: That as much as we don't want a strike, we want a bad contract even less."
The guild does not have to order a strike if a new contract is not in place by tonight – it could instruct its members to keep working under the old contract and keep talking, for several more months if necessary. One option would be to bundle the writers' contract talks with those being negotiated by directors and actors, whose own contracts expire next June.
But the guild now appears determined to call its members out as soon as possible. A short strike probably wouldn't affect the industry unduly – it has television shows in place until the spring and has just gone on a script-buying spree to keep the movie production line flowing. A longer strike, though, could cause cancellations, production stoppages and a steady diet of reruns.
Already, the Teamsters union – which provides drivers, location scouts, casting directors and animal wranglers – has urged its members to respect any strike picket lines. If the guilds representing actors and directors made common cause with the writers, they could, in concert, bring Hollywood to a standstill.
History suggests, however, that there is no winning for the writers. They didn't get their residual deal in 1988 – at the time, home video was the big issue – and they are unlikely to make much headway against the vastly powerful media conglomerates who run Hollywood now.