WGA Issues: December 2006 Archives
No HP for you!I certainly don’t want it to seem like I’m piling on here, but there’s something irksome about tithing 1.5% of my gross earnings to an organization that has lost its mind.
The latest failure of rational thought at the Guild involves something close to my heart: the public status of screenwriters.
Even though I tend to blog about what we can do as individuals to increase our presence in an industry obsessed with actors and directors, that certainly doesn’t mean I’m against someone else giving us a helping hand.
Like, say, the Guild.
That’s what I was excited to hear about a proposal that came out of a Guild committee.
Yes, that’s right. Something actually came out of a committee. Namely, the Publicity And Marketing Committee, which was recently formed to do something about the fact that screenwriters are given less public attention than a pilled-up Nicole Richie driving the wrong way on the 134.
The committee came up with a cross-promotion with HP, the computer, etc. company, with the help of PR firm Davie-Brown. The idea was that HP would run a contest called “The Scene Of Your Life.” Contestants would mail in three-page scenes, and the winners would receive HP computers including screenplays by big name writers…and those writers would actually autograph the computers.
Is it going to leapfrog us ahead of directors when Premiere Magazine does their Summer Preview issue? No. Is it smart? Yes. It starts the good work of equating writers with movies, screenplays with content…and most of all…screenwriters with some form of celebrity.
This is good. This is very good. Mind you, I’m not a big fan of celebrity, but I am a big fan of the celebration of screenwriters and what they do.
So, the committee has this idea, gets HP involved, it’s starting to come together…and what do Verrone and Young do?
They kill it. And why? Oh, brothers and sisters, you’re going to want to be sitting down for this one.
They killed it because Davie-Brown, the firm that reps PR for Hewlett-Packard, is also involved in product integration.
Let me say that again, because sometimes when I repeat something monumentally stupid, I’m not sure it’s real, so bear with me.
They killed a project that would have cost the Guild nothing and netted it free publicity and advanced the name of WGAw members and celebrated screenwriters…because it seemed like it might be contrary to their totally pointless and futile war on product integration.
Hmm, yes, it’s real.
See, Patric and David honestly believe that “altering your strategy to conform to new information or evolving circumstances” is just a fancy way of quitting. And because of that, they are apparently all-too-eager to start firing bullets into their feet.
Wait. Scratch that. Our feet.
To refresh your memory, Patric and David wanted to attack product integration to pressure the advertisers to pressure the networks to give us reality to strengthen our strike to get us better residuals. It’s a strategy Rube Goldberg would have passed on as “too complicated,” but these guys can’t let it go, even though our reality organizing campaign is dead, 18 months of attacking product integration hasn’t resulted in anything except a continuing hemorrhage of dues money, and there’s nothing left to gain by pretending it matters at all anymore, much less using it as a litmus test for whom we ought to be in business with.
Now, before I’m accused of rumor mongering, my information comes from two members of the committee, one of whom is the chairman and a political ally of Patric’s. Yes, there were some other issues with the deal that needed to be worked out (liability and so forth), but what the committee was told was that the “primary reason” it was being killed was the product integration issue.
I can understand Patric and David’s thought process here. They’ve staked their leadership on this strategy. Ergo, getting into business at all with a company that does the very thing that they’re attacking seems wrong.
Of course, they don’t really care about product integration. It’s just a wedge to get reality, which they also don’t care about, since that’s a wedge to get better residuals. And even though any casual observer can see that their strategy has failed, they still kind of have to stick to it, because if they don’t, then Lucy’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.
In other words, their pride and their public face is more important to them than our collective pride and our collective face.
Stupid failed strategy first, screenwriters second.
Like all absurd decisions, this one was as pointless as can be.
So, what next? Who knows? I can only presume Davie-Brown will turn to the DGA and run a “three minute video” contest. Winners will get computers signed by famous directors, screenwriters will continue to hunker in the darkness, but by God, Patric Verrone and David Young’s consistency will be intact.
David YoungAfter writing a bit about my migraines, it’s time I started doling some out to other people. I think I’ll start with Patric Verrone and David Young, who, as the leaders of my union, are chiefly responsible for conceiving, coordinating, and then ultimately killing the effort to organize reality television writers into the WGAw. No, you won’t see any official announcement from the guild that the effort to organize reality is dead. No funeral, no flowers.
But don’t mistake the Guild’s silence for a pulse.
This thing is dead. It’s over. It’s an ex-organizing campaign.
If you’re thinking, “Well, hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I’m afraid to say that quite a bit was ventured…to the tune of seven figures of dues money…and not only was nothing gained, but we actually lost some yardage.
Yes, by my last count, our very expensive reality organizing campaign has managed to bring a net total of negative 12 writers into the WGAw.
What went wrong?
Well, just about everything.
Let’s roll back to the genesis of it all. Patric Verrone, the current President of the WGAw, has been banging the drum of organizing for a very long time, and for good reason. Organizing, which is the catch-all term for bringing new groups of employees into a union, is certainly a major part of union work. The fact that the WGAw lost an organizing battle with IATSE over animation writers, for instance, means that no one ever gets paid residuals on movies like Happy Feet or Shrek or Ice Age or…any of them.
This is bad.
As such, I believe in organizing.
However, where Patric and I differ is that I believe in organizing primarily as a moral imperative to improve the lives of non-unionized employees, while he believes in organizing primarily as a strategy to increase the bargaining power of already unionized writers.
See, I wanted reality writers to get covered by a WGA contract because it’s good for them. They would get minimums, pension and health, and decent working conditions.
Patric wanted reality writers in the WGA because he believed that would allow the rest of us to strike effectively and achieve the real goal, which is to improve our residuals formula. See, we all know that the companies use non-union reality as a wedge against our strike threat. If we strike, they can still keep running very popular reality shows, making our strike less harmful to them.
And Patric didn’t like this.
So he and David Young devised a strategy.
The Verrone-Young strategy goes a little something like this.
- In order to get a better residuals formula, you need to win a strike.
- In order win a strike, you need to have reality workers in your union, striking with you.
- In order to get reality workers in the union to create that effective strike threat, you need to get them all, not just some workers or some shows or some networks or some production companies.
- In order to get them all, you need to get the companies to agree to something they have never ever ever agreed to in Hollywood before, which is a union standards clause. This means that not only would the big companies agree to go union, but they would agree to only work with companies that also agreed to go union.
- In order to get the never-before-gotten union standards agreement, we would have to pressure the companies through a corporate campaign, which is an orchestrated effort to attack the companies in multiple small ways…a “death of a thousand paper cuts”…finally bringing them to their knees.
- Our corporate campaign included three phases. The first involved filing lawsuits alleging that the companies weren’t paying reality writers overtime.
- The second phase attacked the companies over the practice of product integration (the inclusion of advertising within plotlines, etc.), with the expectation that advertisers would freak out and pressure the networks to accede to our demands.
- The third phase was to attempt to create an industry-wide walkout by striking one show and hoping for the “match in the tinderbox” effect. That show was America’s Next Top Model.
You might think, like I did, that this was the most rickety, convoluted, pie-in-the-sky Rube Goldberg strategy you’ve ever encountered.
Or you might think it sounds great.
Either way, here’s what happened.
The overtime lawsuits were batted away like gnats. The companies will likely settle them quietly if they haven’t already. Meanwhile, I’ve been hearing anecdotally that reality writers are being paid overtime…but they’re being paid less per hour…so their overall pay hasn’t changed.
In short, the companies were not brought to their knees.
The effort against product integration included an incredibly clumsy, ham-fisted website called Subservient Donald, a ripoff of Burger King’s wildly successful viral marketing campaign “Subservient Chicken.” The Donald is a Donald Trump impersonator who responds to user questions by slamming various products that are advertised through product integration.
David Young believed that this would “go viral,” which is a phrase that should be outlawed. If you’re trying to “go viral,” you’re not going viral. The internet is rather good at ignoring forced messages.
Unsurprisingly, Subservient Donald was dead on arrival. All other efforts to attack product integration, including guerrilla street theater, picketing in front of advertising conferences and even a lobbying trip to Europe to attempt to influence legislators there against the practice…got nothing.
Zippo. Well, the companies were annoyed by the papercuts, but they weren’t dying or falling to their knees or even flinching.
And so, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent and nothing to show for it, the WGAw took the writers of America’s Next Top Model out on strike.
There were twelve of them.
The theory, apparently, was that once the rest of the reality writers in town saw both the bravery of these twelve writers as well as the incredible show of support from the rest of the union, they would rush out on to their own picket lines in a chain reaction of labor solidarity. With a thousand reality writers on the street, Patric and David would finally bring the companies to their knees.
As most of you know, it didn’t work like that. Instead, simple, obvious and oh-so-predictable human nature trumped Patric and David’s plan. Instead of rushing out to their own picket lines, the rest of the reality writers thought, “Hmmm, let’s see if these people make some progress or get squashed like bugs before we risk our jobs.”
The ANTM writers walked the line for many weeks. They were paid, in fact, by the WGAw. The picket line was catered (this is Hollywood, after all). WGAw members worked phone banks to get other members to walk the line with them in support (I made some of these calls myself).
Now, here’s what I said upon hearing of this strike, and I said it in the Board room.
“The CW would rather kill ANTM than give it to us now, and they would probably be compensated for it by the other companies.”
Why? Because the precedent of rewarding the WGAw for this kind of labor action would be unthinkable for them.
In the end, the ANTM writers were told that not only were they not getting WGAw deals, but all writing jobs on the show were being eliminated.
That’s right. ANTM said, “Hey, you know what, we can do this show with our editors. We don’t even need you, much less feel like giving you a union deal.”
And that’s how our millions in dues money got us the sum total of -12 writers organized into the WGAw.
Still, knowing full well that the ANTM writers were in the process of petitioning to try and get their jobs back anyway, the WGAw decided to light yet another bonfire of cash in a desperate attempt to save face.
They held a “unity” rally.
The entire staff suddenly focused on this event, as if it were ever going to make a damned bit of difference to the ANTM writers (one of whom told me that “if they ask me to speak at the rally, I’m going to tell everyone there not to listen to these people.”).
Hell, they even got Marc Cherry to record a phone message exhorting us all to show up, and then ran it on an autodialer out to all current WGAw members.
Hundreds of people showed up (estimates ran from 700 to 1,000 people), some of whom were non-members, but a good chunk of whom were members.
Patric and David spoke. They spoke about the need to fight. The need to bring the companies to their knees.
Everyone wore a red t-shirt. Then they marched past CBS as if to say, “Hey, CBS, don’t mess with us!”
Then they went home.
The ANTM writers are still looking for work. Some of us have been trying to help find them replacement jobs. The WGAw certainly isn’t.
Then again, I’m starting to wonder if the current leadership ever really gave a damn about these people. And now that this entire thing is dead and they’ve burned through the treasury and have nothing to show for it, all I can say is that I’m angry.
Writers have to earn nearly 67 million dollars to net the Guild a million dollars in dues.
I think they’ve probably spent more than a million on the reality organizing effort, which involved a major staff buildup, web expenditures, trips to Europe, trips to New York, research, production of a large number of useless presentations, catering, t-shirts, and flat-out stipends for strikers.
But let’s just say a million.
That gives me 67 million reasons to be angry.
That’s not all, though.
I have a friend. Good friend. I’ve known him for about six years now. I know his wife. I’ve known his kids since birth. He lives a few miles away from my house. I see him almost every week.
He’s been working in reality all that time.
He has no minimums, he has no pension and health, he gets no residuals, and he works ridiculous hours.
I came to Patric Verrone two years ago and said, “I believe we can organize his show if we take a vote of the staff, go through the NLRB process, keep it quiet, keep it out of the press, and in one year all of those writers will be in our union and have better lives.”
And he said, “So?”
See, that didn’t fit in Patric’s plan of everyone, so he rejected it.
My friend is still working non-union.
One last thought for you.
I had a conversation with a man who is currently on the Board and on the Organizing Committee as well. I put a hypothetical to him that clearly shows where the minds of our leadership are right now.
I said, “If the companies came to you tomorrow and said they’d give all reality writers a great collective bargaining agreement under the auspices of the WGAw, and it would guarantee them minimums and pension and health and great working conditions and even residuals, but the one condition was that it had to be separate from our agreement, so if we struck, they would have to keep working…would you take that deal?”
And he said, “No.”
That’s when I knew that my union, like Harold Crick, was living in a tragedy.