Posted on Saturday, January 5th, 2008 by Peter Sciretta
I haven’t been reporting on the Writers Strike as much as I would have liked to. Mainstream movie news always takes precedence over the Industry stuff (plus Finke and Wells pretty much have that arena well covered). A new /Film correspondent nicknamed Hooper X (an obvious nod to the character from Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy) has decided to pick up the slack and give you the latest. Hopefully, this will be the first of a series of weekly updates on the strike.
Late Night Mayhem
On Wednesday night the late night talk shows returned after more than two months off due to the writer’s strike. The results were remarkably similar to what has been standard operating procedure for years, Jay beat Dave in the ratings once again. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story of how these shows made their way back on the air.
Several weeks ago the Writer’s Guild of America, after another failed attempt at reaching an agreement with the studios on a new contract decided that their best course of action would be to divide and conquer. They issued a statement indicating that they were willing to negotiate individual deals with the various members of the AMPTP (the major movie and television studios for the most part) and forego collective bargaining. While none of the studios jumped at the opportunity, World Wide Pants, David Letterman’s independent production company saw this as an opportunity.
So Rob Burnett and David Letterman took the WGA up on their offer and told them they would agree to all of their demands as long as they could go back on the air with their full contingent of writers. The reason this would work is that Dave owns his show. When he left NBC, CBS agreed to give him ownership of his show and any others he created (the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson). Since Dave owns the shows, he was able to negotiate independent of CBS and Viacom. After weeks of wrangling, late last week Dave was able to come to an interim agreement with the WGA that would allow him and Craig to return to the air with their writers and the full blessing of the WGA. So Wednesday night, in a sense was a triumph for both Letterman and the WGA. Dave got to go back on the air and the WGA showed that not all the producers thought their demands were so unreasonable. Win-Win, so far.
On the other side of the coin were the other late night talk shows. This included Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Carson Daly, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. In all of their cases, the shows they front are the property of the networks they work for. Unlike Dave, Jay Leno and the rest don’t own their shows. Jay, Conan and Carson are owned by NBC Universal, Kimmel is owned by Disney and Stewart and Colbert are owned by Viacom respectively. Ultimately, what all this means is that none of these hosts can independently negotiate with the WGA like Dave did. They don’t own their shows so they must wait for their parent companies to ratify an agreement. But, in spite of the repercussions, all of them decided that they were going to return to work without their writing staff, right or wrong.
This brings us to the mayhem. According to Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood Daily, both Jay and Jimmy Kimmel were in constant contact prior to returning to the air and neither was happy with the fact that, in their minds, Dave got a pass and they were left out in the cold. According to Nikki, Jay was willing to work without his writers but he insisted that he be able to deliver his monologues without censure. When the WGA scoffed at the request Jay threatened to go “Fi Core” or Financial Core. In essence, “Fi Core” means that Jay would remain a paying member of the WGA but would, for all intents and purposes, declare that he no longer wishes to be represented by the WGA. Because, as a working member of the guild who must be a member in order to work, he relinquishes his allegiance to the WGA and will work in direct conflict with the strike while at the same time remaining a member and experiencing no formal reprimand. Simply put, in the words of many WGA members, a certified scab because when all this is over he will still be a member with all the benefits afforded therein.
Here’s where things get really confusing. According to Jay and several unnamed sources who have contacted Nikki, the WGA leadership led Jay to believe that he could do his monologues in violation of the strike rules and that they would simply look the other way. According to Nikki, while the WGA leadership didn’t want Jay to do ANY writing even more than that they didn’t want a public fight with Jay.
So fast-forward to today. Statements and denials have been flying all day. The WGA flatly denies ever telling Jay that he could do his monologue without fear of legitimate punishment and at the same time several sources(according to Nikki Finke) are still indicating that they were in the meeting and witnessed the promise first hand.
Frankly, it seems to me that the WGA got played here. If the WGA really had given Jay a “backdoor waiver” then it would stand to reason that when that information got out the WGA would have a lot to answer for to its membership still out there on the picket lines. If they really didn’t make the offer to Jay they still have a major problem, David Letterman. It’s awfully difficult to convince 10,000 or so striking writers that letting Letterman and Ferguson back on the air with the “interim” agreement isn’t a slap in the face. The reality is this agreement with Letteman’s production company, World Wide Pants, put 40 or so people back to work (20 on Letterman and 20 on Ferguson). But it got the WGA no closer to returning the remaining 9960 or so people back to work. And now the WGA has created two classes of members, those who can work (a handful) and those who can’t.
In my humble opinion, it seems like the WGA leadership is doing a poor job of PR and information management. It seems like every day we get varying stories from multiple sources in the WGA. There is no unified message. If the WGA really wants to win this battle they would do well to close off the many leaks and keep their internal battles to themselves. Fight amongst themselves, decide on a direction and then present it to the public. Don’t let every voice in the guild be heard every day and many times conflict with one another.
United Artists Strike a Deal
Tonight, Nikki Finke announced on her site “Deadline Hollywood Daily” that Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner’s fledgling film company, United Artists and the WGA, have reached a deal. According to Nikki’s report, UA has reached an agreement in principle and will now be free to solicit screenplays and produce films, all with the blessing of the WGA.
This marks a significant moment in the labor dispute between the WGA and the AMPTP.
Up to this point, only David Letterman’s production company, World Wide Pants, had come to such an agreement. And while the very nature of the agreement with WWP and the WGA is significant, the new agreement with UA has much larger and farther reaching implications.
With this new agreement, UA and the WGA have accomplished a couple of important milestones.
First, UA is the first AMPTP represented company to cut a side deal with the WGA. This is significant if only for the fact that UA is the love child of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. That, in and of itself is no small feat. Two of the most powerful players in Hollywood have set a standard. And while this is certainly not on the level of a Dreamworks or Sony defection, it has some important implications.
Second, UA now becomes the only studio, ANYWHERE, who have the right to solicit, purchase and produce new screenplays from striking writers. Not only can they work with striking screenwriters but if this strike becomes protracted, they will be the only studio who can freely hire actors and directors who have pledged to honor the picket lines. This puts them in a unique position to monopolize the “above-the-line” talent until this strike has resolved itself.
In my humble opinion, I don’t believe this is the end of the strike. However, I find it difficult to believe that the other movie studios will sit idly by while one (up and coming) studio poaches all the talent and monopolizes the movie industry. And with this move, UA have put themselves in the position to do just that.
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