The Writer and the Gun -- How The WGA Is Being Rewritten

This was submitted by WGA member Michael Seitzman. It also appears in the Huffington Post.

A producer once told me that when the writer is working, the script is the gun that holds everyone else hostage. When the writer stops typing, he hands the gun to the producer and director and immediately joins the other hostages against the wall.

On November 1, 2007, The Writers Guild of America typed "Fade In" by going on strike. Last week, when the Directors Guild and the AMPTP announced that they'd made a deal, we watched as the WGA leadership handed over the gun and took their place against the wall, hands high in the air.

It's a cliché in Hollywood. The writer has an idea, structures a story, pours his blood and tears into it, only to turn in the script and watch helplessly as the studio finds someone else to rewrite him and take credit.

I'm not talking about the deal points here. I'm not talking about residuals, distributor's gross, or 17 free days of internet streaming. Those are all items for us to hash out in the coming days. What I'm talking about is the single most obvious failing of the Writers Guild leadership throughout this labor dispute - controlling the narrative that they began on November 1st.

When the DGA and the AMPTP proudly announced their deal, the WGA leadership needed to swiftly and decisively grab control of the story. There should have been a press conference - immediately. There should have been a membership meeting - announced to the press. It didn't matter whether the leadership had any official opinions yet. It only mattered that they showed they were in control, that they were responding deftly, with agility and strength, and that they sent a loud and clear message to the AMPTP and the world that there is an intimate relationship between the WGA leadership and its members, and no one else is going to step in and lead them.

For much of this struggle, that relationship between the leadership and the members has been robust and authentic. But last week, instead of direct conversation at a critical juncture, when nerves are frayed and people are exhausted, we received a very polite, yet subtly terse press release that communicated absolutely nothing. And a day after that release, we received another, followed by a weekend of rumors of "back channel talks," guild leaders scrambling to see the actual DGA contract, emails shooting from writer to writer with petitions and letters to be signed expressing solidarity, another that threatens a strike for as long as it takes, another that says we should take the DGA deal now (though it hasn't actually been analyzed or even offered).

The DGA deal has elements in it that many writers I've spoken with hate immediately - specifically the 17-day free window for internet streaming and the $1200/yr flat fee after that. Other writers feel that the phrase "distributor's gross" is significant enough that we should disregard the rest. Some screenwriters are rumored to be discussing going Fi-Core (though nobody seems to have met any of them yet). One showrunner asked me how the "movie writers would like it if their movies were offered for free for three weeks." A screenwriter then said that this has been "a TV strike from day one" and he's had enough.

Anarchy is defined as a state of disorder due to an absence or non-recognition of authority. While our leadership is hunkered down, trying to determine what the deal really is and how much to push that deal, the members are spinning their own narratives in the absence of any other. The type of thoughtful, behind-the-scenes work that the board is doing right now is vital, yes, but it's only one front in this war. The other fronts are the organization and galvanization of the members and the controlling of the story in the media. In just three days, we've come dangerously close to losing those battles.

There may be a deal to be made with the AMPTP in the coming weeks. I happen to think there is. But it's only going to happen if our leadership re-establishes that intimate connection with its members. It took this community of writers to type Fade In. It's going to take the same community to type Fade Out.


Steve said...

I think there are some very good points in here, but I also happen to think the WGA did the membership a service by not reacting, or overreacting, to this DGA thing.

A lot of the complaints I hear from the "BTL" folks that I work with / am friends with / run into at bars is that they think the WGA is a loose cannon.

The fact that they did nothing to feed into that after the DGA announced their "deal" except announce they were looking it over and running the numbers... I think, is a good thing.

I'm hoping the DGA deal is a starting point, because right now - meetings planned or not, votes planned or not, press releases released or not - the Oscars, Grammys, Pilot Season and New Seasons of TV hang in the balance.

Right now, I'm sure there's concern that the WGA and SAG could combine into one big strike and nobody on the other side of the table wants that.

Right now, even though it seems like we have less leverage, I think we have more.

But then, that's how I feel right now. :)

- Steve

jj said...

I couldn't disagree more.

Having a press conference to say that you don't have anything to say makes you look weak and indecisive.

Gathering the membership for no specific reason would be a waste of time and effort a well as an invitation for emotional venting rather than intelligent discourse - why..? - because all the information hasn't been made available.

Leadership did the smart thing. They played their cards close to the vest. The took control by NOT telling anybody what they were thinking or what their next move would be. Whereas a week ago we were on the sidelines, now everybody is waiting on us, and that's the right place to be.

hollarback said...

This isn't "drama" it's a labor strike. A better analogy might be to poker...you don't show your hand at the first bluff. I'd quote Kenny Rogers here if it'd help...

Rodney Vaccaro said...

As of Friday, nobody outside the AMPTP and DGA negotiators had even seen the DGA deal. All we had seen was the press release which outlined in very broad strokes a few bullet points, none of which were really explained.

It would have been incredibly irresponsible for our leadership to take any action based on a lot of unknowns.

For instance, the phrase "Distributor's gross" was mentioned, but that was all...it was mentioned. As anyone who has ever negotiated a contract knows, every word can have a thousand meanings. We have no idea what this phrase means within the context of a very complex agreement.

As it has with every step of this negotiation, I think our leadership has acted with calm, cool, intelligent strength. The worst thing we could do, at this point, is take a knee jerk reaction to a deal with a guild that has very different needs than our own. This is exactly what we did in '88 and we paid for it, literally, for the next 20 years.

We have more leverage right now than we have had at any point in this strike. I believe the Oscars are already a loss, and the AMPTP knows, full well, that if we go on to March 1, all production, literally ALL production will shut down in anticipation of a SAG strike. As Paul Haggis so eloquently pointed out, the legendary dissenting show runners and A-listers are about as real as the Loch Ness monster.

Right now, I really believe the WGA is stronger than it has ever been. There is no reason to panic. Just stay calm and stay strong.

Michael said...

I sympathize, I guess, but I don't really agree. If there's ever been a point at which the NegComm needed a little breathing space from the membership, it's now.

These are all complicated issues. There are probably as many differing opinions about the DGA deal within the NegComm as there are in the membership as a whole. So the press release and email said exactly the right thing: the leadership / Neg Comm is carefully studying the DGA deal and determining what to do next. To say anything mroe than that would have been incredibly hasty and foolish.

While I understand that a more clear-cut response might be more emotionally satisfying, it would also be counter-productive in terms of moving forward. I will trade some emotional solace for productivity.

Cyber said...

The best thing to do in this situation is, yes, stay in contact with the members.

But what you tell them is important too.

Simply telling the members "The DGA made a deal, and we're looking into it and crunching the numbers. Don't believe a thing until we talk to you again, and have patience as this could take a few days." would have been adequate.

Even now, a statement from the WGA saying 'Don't believe a thing until we talk to you again -we're still looking into the deal and working things out in the background. Stay strong, and have patience.' would be adequate (and probably much-needed).

And that's all there is too it. Can't do much else until they know what the deal is, and work the numbers from there.

(And so by the way, the actors are *already* striking with the writers. Go check MSN's latest articles.)

Ashley Gable said...

I loved the hostage metaphor in this piece, and then everything after that lost me.

If the WGA had held a press conference after the DGA deal was announced, what on earth would they have said? "We hear there's this deal, we haven't seen it, um, any questions?"

Or is the author trying to suggest the leadership should have beaten their breasts, grunted about how powerful they were and how this deal was all the writers' doing? Because that kind of (forgive me) Y-chromosome shit is exactly what we don't want. As Bowman and others keep saying, it's not personal. It's about money. It's business.

So as to the studios "rewriting us" and taking credit for a deal -- who cares? Let the DGA take the "Deal By" credit if they want. All I care about is that my leadership negotiates thoughtfully and with the best interests of writers in mind.

In my opinion, the leadership's silence in this situation shows how strong the relationship is with the members, and how much trust exists. They know we're not children and that we can appreciate the fact that they only speak when they have something important to say.

Frustrated Bystander said...

I kind of remember reading that there was a cautious missive about thoughtfulness and making sure that what the neg comm is looking at with the DGA deal is analyzed appropriately for a more measured response. I applaud the more measured response, and I also applaud the hard line stance when it's needed. I'm sorry for those who just want to take this deal to get back to work, I asked my husband if he were asked to ratify this deal, would he? He said probably not. He felt that there were issues that could come up a bit. I agree. The EST and the .30% to .70% is still way too low and just silly.

It's apparent from Seitzman's article that he wants a discussion on divisiveness. But remember, divided you fall, united you stand. It's a basic principal of group dynamics. Let yourself be split and you're sunk. Isn't that regular studio dynamics in the first place? Set one writer upon another and watch social darwinism take its course? If you want to be the antelope split off from the herd, be my guest; but I feel that the herd is stronger not splitting up into factions as this article is encouraging.

The other point to note is the DGA deal is a chance for a segment of BTL'ers to make their position heard. Remember, DGA still has to ratify this deal on January 26th.

Al said...

This essay is striking in that the writer, who purports to have the interests of the WGA in mind, would actually post it in public. Any union writer who goes public with his complaints is siding with the enemy, as far as I am concerned. If he believes that he is not, he is either deluded or a narcissist or both.

Is dissent welcome in the Guild? Yes, among ourselves. Do you ever see the other side openly criticizing its leadership? NEVER!

A supreme irony, eh? The writer of this essay pretends to care about the welfare of the Guild, while subverting it in the most egregious way.

Fortunately, the essay suggests a foolish course of action. Guild leadership has handled the DGA deal just right. With patience and prudence.

stuiec said...

Uncertainty is one of the most dangerous enemies in any enterprise. It seems to me that Seitzman is merely reminding everyone of that fact, and asking the WGA leadership to regain control over the narrative of the struggle. The narrative, after all, has the power to pull together the different strands of opinion in the Guild and get them back to focusing on the need for solidarity and patience.

D Dragon said...

Sorry, Dude.

Rule number one of any argument or negotiation still stands. He who speaks first, usually loses.

Be comfortable in silence. It usually makes the person across from you squirm, and feel like they have to say something.

hotline said...

Our leadership did EXACTLY the right thing.

And I agree with Al, if you disagree with the leadership - keep it in the family. When you publicly speak out against our union I see that as not only colossally sucking up to the AMPTP but you're also selling out the other 10,500 of us out who are not the leadership.

Josh said...

I would caution those who think this is just a TV writer's strike to be careful. Back in the 80s the home video issue was supposed to be just a movie writer's issue, b/c after all no one would ever try to rent or sell TV shows on VHS or DVD when you can just watch a rerun. It turned out a little differently.