Hollywood, writers script a cliffhanger

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The one sure thing that can be said as the contract between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers nears its midnight expiration tonight is that almost no one seems to want a strike.

That does not mean there won't ultimately be one, but both sides seemed determined over the weekend and yesterday to at least try to keep the talks going past tonight's deadline if progress is being made.

What's at stake for the players in Hollywood are billions of dollars in future revenue and residuals primarily connected to the future sale of U.S. television series and future films abroad. As for viewers, what they are seeing is already being affected by just the possibility of a strike.

The prospect of continuing the talks past tonight's deadline was first raised publicly late last week by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who has been actively trying to avert a strike in recent weeks. His office released a study showing that Los Angeles County would lose up to 82,000 jobs and $6.9 billion if writers and actors go on strike, with unemployment jumping from 4.8 percent to 6.9 percent.

That's assuming actors also go on strike. Contracts between major Hollywood studios and the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists expire June 30. There is a history of solidarity between the writers and actors.

With a media blackout in place since April 17, official confirmation of plans to continue negotiations could not be obtained. But sources said yesterday that the continuation of talks past the deadline seemed highly likely. The WGA cannot go on strike without a strike authorization vote, and none had been scheduled as of yesterday.

The last time the WGA went on strike, in 1988, a vote was not taken until six days after the contract expired. That strike lasted six months and greatly disrupted the network television season.

The networks lost 9 percent of their audience, according to figures provided before the news blackout by Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. Warner Bros. produces such network series as "The West Wing," "ER" and "Friends."

While the impact of a strike has been discussed primarily in terms of dollars and cents and future losses, television programming and viewers' lives have already been affected by the possibility of a work stoppage.

One of the main reasons for the glut of new reality shows this spring is not just the tremendous success of CBS' "Survivor" last summer, but also the fact that they don't require scripts from Guild members. The networks pointedly refer to reality series such as "Survivor" as "nonscripted fare."

And, while you might love "Survivor," do you feel your viewing life enriched by UPN's "Chains of Love," ABC's "The Mole" or Fox's "Temptation Island"? The networks have made no secret of the fact that they ordered far more of these shows than they might have to help insulate themselves against not having fresh programs in the fall should a strike occur.

"We've had strike planning meetings on a bimonthly basis for about 10 months now getting ready for this," Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast, told television critics in January. "We have a number of reality shows that are in stages ready to go that we'll try out in the spring."

Viewers have seen one of those NBC shows, "Weakest Link." That's as good - or bad, depending on your point of view - as the roster gets.

The other effect of a possible strike being felt in America's living rooms involves the rushed production of such hit series as "Law & Order" in an effort to stockpile episodes for next fall.

"Everybody is exhausted. Production is being pushed. Mistakes are going to be made," Roth said in January.

Most network series had finished making all episodes for this season in March. What we are now seeing on the screen is the product of that hurry-up offense earlier in the year - the less carefully crafted episodes.

Rhetoric on both sides has made it difficult for many viewers to understand the complicated issues underlying the contract talks. The key ones are all tied to residuals - the payments made to writers each time a film or television show they wrote airs. Of particular concern to writers are foreign television residuals.

"This is not about trying to get new things, but rather to make adjustments in old formulas that have become outdated by changes in the industry," Michael Mahern, secretary-treasurer of the Writers Guild, West, said before the news blackout.

For example, a writer of an episode of "ER" now gets a one-time payment of $7,000 for foreign rights, which cover all airings of the episode outside the United States. That kind of one-shot payment was negotiated in 1970, when the foreign market largely consisted of a few government monopolies: BBC in Britain, NHK in Japan and the RAI network in Italy. Given that setup, there was not much money to be made abroad.

But 30 years later, the landscape is vastly different, with many more foreign markets and many channels in foreign countries now owned by the same entertainment conglomerates that own the networks and studios here. As the multinational corporations circulate programs through their various international outlets, the writers want to share in those profits.

Hand-in-hand with new markets abroad are new methods of delivery such as DVD.

"The problem that we're all faced with is all these distribution channels that nobody had ever set rules and regulations on how to deal with," said Rita O'Brennan, president of Flite 3, a full-service audio, video and film production facility in Baltimore. O'Brennan is also president of the Maryland Production Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for production professionals in Maryland.

"You now produce a feature film, and then it goes to VHS. Then it goes to DVD. Sometimes it's being streamed over the Internet. So, [Guild thinking is] why should they not be paid residuals on all that - all the way down that distribution pipeline? It's reaching a much broader market, an international market that it wasn't reaching five or 10 years ago," she said.

"It's problematic for everybody. It's problematic for the major studios and the producers. It's problematic on the media end as to how you handle it. It's problematic for the advertisers. We're all trying to figure out how everybody can take a little piece of this pie and not hurt any one sector. That's the challenge of these negotiations."

If the talks do continue past midnight tonight, people contacted for this report cautioned against thinking that a settlement is at hand.

"Traditionally, the Writers Guild has been the most militant of the creative unions. We've struck many times over the years. In fact, I think it is probably safe to say that every substantial advance that we've gotten in a contract has either come because we went on strike or threatened to go on strike," Mahern said in January.

"They might continue negotiations for a week or two, but I don't think they're going to push it past two weeks," O'Brennan said yesterday. "They started this process months ago. This is just my general sense, but I think two more weeks at the most, and then you either have a strike or you don't."

In Maryland

It is hard to predict how a writers' strike would affect the Maryland film and television industry, said Rita O'Brennan, president of Flite 3, a production facility in Baltimore. During the 1988 writers' strike, her company did very well, though she isn't sure its success had any relation to the strike.

Jack Gerbes, deputy director of the Maryland Film Office, said Maryland has already been indirectly affected by the possibility of a strike, insofar as the national film and television industry in general is "on hold and waiting to see what will happen with the talks."

In terms of feature films or made-for-TV movies, outside of low-budget independent productions, the only ones that went on location in recent months are those that could finish filming by July 1 in case of an actors' strike.

"It's going to impact the whole country; we're like everybody else in that regard," Gerbes said.

-- David Zurawik

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