WGA Issues: November 2006 Archives
Dan Petrie, Jr.Ed. Note: Dan Petrie, Jr. is not only the screenwriter of films like Beverly Hills Cop, but he served as the President of the WGAw from 1997 to 1999 as well as from 2004-2005. Dan wrote a provocative and poignant post on WriterAction about a friend and colleague, Grace Reiner, as well as various issues that should be of concern to any WGA member. Dan added some context and has agreed to let me publish his remarks here. They are unedited.
Some sad news for all writers came today: Grace Reiner, Assistant Executive Director of the Writers Guild of America, west, is leaving the Guild. A lawyer, Grace has played a vital role in every Guild negotiation in memory. Between negotiations she is a fierce guardian of the Writers Guild film and television contract, the Minimum Basic Agreement (or MBA); more than one writer has nicknamed her “Rain Man” for her uncanny ability to cite by page and paragraph every obscure provision in the 400+ page document.
This comes on the heels of a wholesale series of departures in the wake of the appointment of our new Executive Director.
I learned this news on the WriterAction message board. As I’m sure most of the people who follow “The Artful Writer” know, WriterAction, which is open to WGA members only, was created as a forum to empower rank-and-file members to communicate with each other and debate Guild issues, and to speak truth to power, as the saying goes. As such, WriterAction has been a vital forum for Guild discussion and debate. It’s not quite as vital now, however: after the WriterAction founder became a member of the majority on the Guild’s current Board, she suddenly launched a rather vicious attack against “the obsessive posters here on WA who hate [WGAw President] Patric [Verronne], [Vice President] David Weiss, [new WGAw Executive Director] David Young, and the whole WU slate and who overpost enough to lull others here into thinking that that theirs is a majority opinion. I’m sorry to say that WA is NOT a good barometer of the state of this union. If you REALLY care enough to know what’s going on, then get off this site and go to a Board meeting. Go to a rally. Get to hear people who aren’t bitter and can’t get over their personal emotional issues with the current administration and who have an actual plan to tackle the issues at hand and get us a real contract next time.” She then announced that WriterAction had become, in her exact words, “a ghetto of the disgruntled. Not everyone here, but the loudest voices certainly are. It’s tragic, and shameful, and destructive, and BORING.”
Well, actually WriterAction was never a good barometer of Guild majority opinion. In fact, the whole point of WriterAction was to provide for the expression of minority views - at least, I thought so. But in the wake of the founder’s pronouncement, it was suggested that perhaps, as an experiment, the most frequent posters on WriterAction should take 3 months off. Perhaps then the Guild leadership would post on WriterAction, or expressions of support for the current leadership would be more freely expressed.
What a turnaround. It used to be that WriterAction administrators would only ask a member not to post after months of the most outrageous personal attacks and outright libel, and even then there would be a chorus of members asking that that member be allowed to keep posting.
But lo and behold, those frequent posters all agreed to stop posting for 3 months. Guess what? WriterAction grew more dull. Neither the Guild leadership nor their supporters swooped in to fill the void. But I still check in with WriterAction when I can, because even in its diminished state, it can still be an important source of Guild news. And thus, I found out the bad news about Grace Reiner leaving the Guild.
The person who shared that information went on to say, “Look folks, I’m trying not to be negative but I’m going to be honest. I think our current leadership is a disaster. The ANTM [America’s Next Top Model] strike was mismanaged from start to finish and some of the Guild’s best employees have been fired or left. We’re in very bad shape going into negotiations.”
Whoops. That’s exactly the kind of opinion that is not supposed to be expressed anymore. A member of Board was quick to take this person to task. “Isn’t your posting above an example of a tendency here to go immediately to the worst case scenario before knowing the facts?” the Board member said. “Linking Grace’s leaving with the performance of the leadership is what the erstwhile Princeton-educated Maison would call post hoc ergo procter hoc. Or, to put it more colloquially, carelessly tossing a match on dry brush. We have subsequently learned that Grace was not fired but left to pursue, in her own words, a “dream job” elsewhere.”
I’m guessing by Maison he meant Craig Mazin of this very website. Did Craig go to Princeton? (Ed. Note: I did.) If so, he would know that the logical fallacy of coincidental correlation is called post hoc ergo propter - not proctor - hoc. Later, the same Board member said, “the fact that several senior members have either been let go or have resigned in the past year, on David [Young’s] watch, probably has very little to do with him. Post hoc ergo procter [sic] hoc.”
I trust that the Board member wasn’t being intentionally disingenuous, but he could not have been, in my view, more wrong.
I hope you’ll agree that the forgoing gives necessary context to the following, which I posted on WriterAction in response:
At the risk of being told, in this great message board’s founder’s memorable phrase, that I am “tragic, and shameful, and destructive, and BORING,” and at the risk of being sneered at in Latin, I would like to correct a misimpression that has been left here, perhaps in all innocence.
Grace Reiner has indeed resigned voluntarily, to take a very good job: she will be Vice President, Legal Affairs, for the Disney Channel. The Disney Channel is a great place to work, and Grace is an exceptionally able legal executive, so congratulations are in order, both to Grace on her new appointment, and to Disney for making such a great hire.
That said, it is not true that leaving the Guild was Grace’s first choice, or anything like it. I believe it is fully accurate to say that Grace would not have accepted the Disney Channel’s offer, as good as it is, had she still been happy at the Guild.
One doesn’t have to fire someone to get rid of them. One can create conditions that force the person to leave. For example, one can ask the person to write memos on policy matters, and then exclude the person from meetings held to discuss those very memos. One can otherwise ignore, marginalize and exclude the person from the access, authority and direction needed to do the job. And, when that person formally asks for these concerns to be addressed, one can simply not respond.
Grace Reiner’s tremendous abilities have been highly valued by every elected leadership and every Executive Director of this Guild, going back to well before I was even a member - until now. Her talents have not gone unnoticed by others, either: she has received many tempting offers over the years, from studios, networks, other guilds and the AMPTP itself. But Grace always wanted to stay at the Writers Guild. She has exceptional loyalty to writers, and has always gotten great joy from passionately representing the best interests of writers.
Losing Grace Reiner is a bitter, indeed tragic loss for the Guild. As valuable as she’ll be to the Disney Channel, her unique knowledge of the MBA, the most complex single labor-management agreement in (I believe) the United States, and the bargaining history that informs every clause in it is just one of the many reasons she’s much more valuable to us.
Hard as it is to imagine a greater loss, let me suggest one. What has happened to the oversight function of the Board of Directors? Can it really be that board members are so out of touch that they honestly believe this hemorrhage of anyone who might offer greater experience or a contrary point of view is simply a series of unrelated, coincidental events?
As Clifford [Green] pointed out [in a post on the WriterAction thread], [former Asst. Executive Director and longtime head of WGAw Public Relations] Cheryl Rhoden was fired. She did not retire voluntarily [as the Board member suggested].
[Asst. Executive Director] Greg Bernstein was marginalized and excluded by our Executive Director, and promptly left.
It’s true that [former Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel] Marshall Goldberg [also a WGA member for over 25 years] is happy to be writing again, but it is also true that he was fired in a particularly brutal manner. He was escorted out of the building immediately, and told that he should not have his scheduled lunch with a board member. “Perp walk” seems an apt description; it’s certainly not a “canard” [the word used by that Board member to describe the use of the phrase “perp walk.]
Every board I was on was not shy about finding out what was going on at the Guild. Why does the current one seem to be different?
Why such a willingness to not probe behind some transparent official version of events?
Why did the Board vote to appoint our current Executive Director without debate, via a telephone poll?
Why did the Board accept the 7-2 vote of the [Executive Director] Search Committee at face value? Why did the Board not question the Committee about how its conclusions were reached? The Board would have learned that the initial vote of the Committee was 5-4 for another candidate (apparently the new Executive Director of SAG). The Board would have also learned that, after one member of the committee was persuaded to change his vote, making it 5-4 in favor of our current ED, the other two votes in favor were won by appeals for Guild unity.
In recent years the Guild has had a tradition of openness with the membership, of frank and full disclosure of information of concern to Writers Guild members, whether good news or bad, whether popular or not. Now there are a great many calls for unity and support but not much communication about what is really happening. Evidently at one point the America’s Next Top Model strikers made unconditional offers to return to their jobs - we know this because the Guild, quite rightly, filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB when those unconditional offers were not accepted. But of course, the moment the strikers made those unconditional offers to return to work, the strike had failed. When did that happen? When did the Board find out that that happened? And why did the membership have to learn about this in the trades?
Recently the membership learned - also from the trades - that Writers Guild East announced that a CBS Newswriters’ contract will be sent to the members working under that contract for a vote, and that Writers Guild East was urging rejection of the contract. Did the Board know that was happening? Why wasn’t it a joint announcement, as is required under East-West agreements which, I believe, are still in force? Did the Board vote in favor of sending the contract to the members concerned, and if so, did they do so before or after the East announced it in the trades? Did the Board satisfy itself that this strategy is the best one for our newswriters? Did the Board find something in our Constitution that permits such a vote in the first place? And once again, why does our membership have to learn about this from the trades?
I know, I know - these questions are all tragic, and shameful, and destructive, and BORING. Possibly they are canards as well. As much as I enjoy following the discussions on WriterAction, it’s not in my nature to post much. (I must say, I liked WriterAction better in the days when the founder did not think it was tragic and shameful for posters here to hold the Guild leadership’s feet to the fire, even when two of those feet were mine.) One reason I’m reluctant to post much is that I’ve seen how easy it is for posts to be misinterpreted. So I want to make it clear that I understand how hard it is to be a member of the Board or an officer of the Guild. I deeply appreciate and respect the service and sacrifice. All our elected officials are volunteers, all have other jobs, other lives; none can be at the Guild all the time - believe me, I know this.
But I also feel terrible about what happened to the ANTM writers. I’m fearful for our newswriters.
And I know that losing Grace Reiner is like losing a limb.
I’d be astonished if every member of our Board did not feel that loss as keenly as I do. I sincerely hope that, as the Board realizes that they were in the dark about the actions and inactions that caused this amputation, they will start looking at the causes of other departures. I hope they will prevent future departures. Our institutional memory is vanishing; we can’t afford to lose it altogether.
I hope that they will also look closely at the ANTM strike to see how the strategy and tactics that were embraced and supported so enthusiastically met with such failure.
I hope they will look deeply into, and fully debate, the new strategy in the CBS-Newswriters negotiation as announced, unilaterally, by WGA East, for while the East ED is the lead negotiator on this contract, we represent many members who work under that contract and our Board owes them the responsibility of an independent judgment.
I wish Grace the best of happiness and success in her new venture. The loss is all on our side.
In the last article, I wrote about what I perceive to be a growing gap between the way writers look at new ways to gain power and the way writers’ representatives look at new ways to gain power.
To summarize, the writer’s model is a traditional one, in which writers work as employees and collectively bargain with management for better terms…hoping to move our participation in revenues forward…and pursuing a strategy of organizing and strike threats to achieve this goal.
The representatives’ model, which is currently evolving, works a little something like this.
In the future, a filmmaking unit will not work as employees for a studio. Rather, the filmmaking unit (writer and director and perhaps star) will present their vision of a movie to a group of independent financiers, who will form a partnership with the filmmakers. Obviously, this is nothing new. Hell, just about every indy art film is made this way. What’s changing is the amount available.
For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that the financiers will spend about 25 million dollars to finance the film, and in exchange for that, they will own 75% of the film. The filmmakers will still get paid their normal front-end salaries, but they will also own 25% of the film.
The financiers do not give notes. They do not request final cut. They have simple terms like “it has to be PG-13 or R” and “it can’t run more than 120 minutes.”
While the film is in production, the representatives shop it to studios. They state that given the economic realities of foreign sales, broadcast fees, etc., if a studio purchases the film for 40 million dollars, the studio pretty much knows they can automatically make that back and then some, just by dint of standard global exploitation of the property.
The studio buys the film for 40 million dollars. The financiers recoup their 25 million dollar investment, leaving an additional 15 million, which is instant profit.
The filmmakers’ 25% nets them nearly four million in additional cash. But that’s just the beginning.
The studio will spend money to market and distribute the film. Let’s say that they spend enough to offset the entire worldwide theatrical gross of the movie. No problem. As everyone knows, the profit is entirely in the video. That’s the free money. Because the studios rely on video for their profit, they have been loathe to share it with the artists.
The WGA strikes in ‘85 and ‘88 were over video residuals definitions. If we strike in 2007, it will be over internet video residuals definitions.
Currently, a writer receives 1.5% of 20% of the studios’ video earnings.
Surely that number is better for big stars or big producers, right? Well, maybe bigshots can do better than the 1.5%, but everyone gets screwed on the definition on the earnings. In the WGA’s case, it’s that 20% number. Some people get that number to 25%. Really big-time producers and stars can push it to 35%.
But financiers? The people who post the cash to finance the film?
In our example, the filmmakers are partnered with the financiers, so they piggyback on to the 100% definition. Now let’s say the sales deal to the studio included a 15% share of the video. Our filmmakers’ take would be nearly 4%.
4% of 100%. As opposed to 1.5% of 20%.
In other words, 4% vs. .3%. The video earnings would be 13 times as much as you would normally get.
If you’re talking about a decent hit, it’s the difference between earning a few hundred grand in residuals…and earning 30 million dollars in video profits.
Now, think that’s all crazy talk? Think that’s never gonna happen?
What if I told you it happened last week?
Instead of selling his next script to a studio, Sascha Baron Cohen packaged his next film with independent financiers for 25 million dollars, presold it to Universal for 42 million dollars, and will likely earn tens of millions if the movie does decent business.
Sascha Baron Cohen has leapfrogged beyond unions. He has leapfrogged beyond employment. He is an owner now.
Think this only works if you’re a star as well as a writer? Well, the filmmakers of Babel did the same thing. It’s happening more and more now, and I think it’s the wave of the future. Mid-sized budget films are going to be independently financed, and the studios will simply serve as releasing companies, providing the services that they provide best (marketing and distribution).
Why would the companies allow this?
First off, they’re not. They’re being competed against by new money, and if Baron Cohen wants to partner up with some Wall Street money to make his next movie, there’s nothing they can do about it.
Secondly, the very corporatization and conglomeratization that unions fear is very likely a source of advantage for entrepreneurs. The studios used to fly by their gut. No more. They’re not in the business of building a library that will pay off huge dividends in the future. They’re in the business of increasing their stockholders’ value right now, and that means minimizing risk.
As one agent explained to me, “Just about every studio film is now cofinanced with another studio or an independent partner. If they’re going to hedge their bet with outside money, why shouldn’t you be that outside money?”
In my mind, reliable filmmakers who shoot genre films for a price will be the immediate beneficiaries of this new model. Think Baron Cohen, Judd Apatow, Eli Roth and so forth. It will spread, though. Once a writer makes 30 million dollars on a movie that only earned, say, 90 million at the box office in the U.S., every single writer in Hollywood is going to want to do the same thing.
What’s the practical effect?
Studio development will wither away.
Production companies that aren’t based around artists will wither away.
The unions and studio management will continue to negotiate contracts that will cover fewer and fewer artists.
Total filmmakers will be rewarded.
Specialists will not.
Granted, this could all be crazy talk. Maybe what Baron Cohen and Guillermo Arriaga (Babel) did is just a brief quirk in the Hollywood timeline, and we’ll all be laughing about it five years from now.
Something tells me, though, that this trend will continue because it makes sense. If it does, we may finally get everything we ever thought we deserved.
And then some.
Edited to add: Ted just alerted me to an L.A. Times article about this very topic. Of particular note is the paragraph that describes how Tony Gilroy wrote a script, then declined to sell it to a studio, preferring instead to meet with private financiers.