Thursday, November 29, 2007

Writers' Strike: Why They're Talking

The writers and the producers (studios and networks) returned to talks this past weeks, following a three-week period, during which no talks occurred, after negotiations collapsed on November 4. What persuaded the parties to resume discussions?

The writers are back at the table for these reasons:

(1) The Directors Guild of America (DGA) is Waiting in the Wings. The Writers Guild knows that if they don't do a deal soon, the DGA will commence negotiations with the producers and do a deal first. (Even though the DGA's contract doesn't expire until June 30, they like to do their deals early.)

The home video and new media aspects of that deal would then become the template for the writers' deal, because all three guilds (writers, directors, and actors) mirror each other in the home video portion of the agreements. And, the directors' deal would be more favorable to studios than the writers' deal would be.

The reason the directors would be less assertive is that the directors don't care about residuals as much as the writers, because two important DGA constituencies don't relay on residuals as much as writers do: film directors generally receive more upfront money than writers and are less reliant on residuals; and assistant directors and other non-director personnel, who are 40% of the DGA membership, receive virtually no residuals. (This leaves middle-class TV directors somewhat in the lurch.)

Also, film directors probably view themselves as quasi-management (which is accurate - they tell people what to do!), and would thus be less aggressive from a labor union perspective.

(2) Unity is Beginning to Crack. Writers are also returning to the table because unity is beginning to crack. For instance, many showrunners - the writer-producers who write and supervise TV shows - are apparently returning to their producing duties (though not their writing duties). This will allow shows to continue producing scripts they have on hand, giving the networks a new lease on life, even though no new scripts are being written.

Also, the Teamsters (truck drivers), who had expressed unity with the writers, are now apparently crossing the picket line in significant numbers. Their support had been key, since their refusal to deliver equipment can shut down production immediately. If nothing moves, nothing shoots.

In addition, the IATSE (union representing "below-the-line" workers such as cinematographers, production designers, hair, makeup, etc.) has continued to be critical of the strike, since many of its members are out of work as a result.

The producers (studios and networks) are back at the table for these reasons:

(1) TV Shows Went Dark Faster Than Expected. The fact that the showrunners ceased their producing duties meant that many shows (several dozen so far) ceased production much sooner than the studios and networks expected.

(2) Movies Began to be Postponed. The average studio movie costs $100 million to produce and distribute. Without a writer on standby to touch up (or even rewrite) the script during production, studios, stars and directors are reluctant to begin production. And, once a movie is postponed, it becomes difficult and expensive to restart it: stars and directors may be unavailable because they're working on other projects, locations become unavailable, options may expire, etc.

(3) Pilot Season is Imperiled. The networks select new shows for next fall season by ordering pilots - sample, initial episodes of prospective TV series. Scripts are written, some are selected for production as pilots, then the resulting pilots are viewed and some are selected to become new series. This process happens during January through early April. Without scripts, there's no pilots and no pilot season. Without pilots, there are no new series, at least under the current system (some execs suggest that this process is inefficient and overly expensive in any case).

(4) The Studios and Networks Were Losing the PR Battle. The studios and networks were unprepared for the PR onslaught -- blogging, YouTube videos, international demonstrations, rallies, statements of support from politicians and from other unions, and the like. Surveys of both the entertainment industry and of the public at large show overwhelming support for the writers.

Both parties are back at the table for these additional reasons:

(1) The Industry as a Whole Wants Them to Negotiate. People are losing their jobs, the industry is shutting down, and the community saw both sides trading vitriolic barbs rather than engaging in serious negotiation. Anger was building against both parties.

(2) Agents Began to Mediate. Agents don't make money unless deals get made. This put them on the firing line. Also, agents have a foot in both camps: they represent the writers, but they dress, talk, think like, and lunch with the execs. Also, they spend their day making deals, every day. They're uniquely positioned to induce the parties to negotiate, and to reach a solution, and they stepped up to the plate and engaged the parties.

All of these pressures and efforts bore fruit in getting the parties back in the room. Now it's time for them to complete the process and reach an agreement.

This article first appeared on The Huffington Post on 11/29/07.

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