Actor Zoe Lister-Jones joins strikers in New York last week. Image via W editor's blog.
Both Sides in Writers' Strike See New-Media Future at Stake
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
Published: December 1, 2007
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 30 — The nearly month-old strike by screenwriters has entered a new and perhaps uglier phase, revealing the conflict for what it has been all along: not so much a tiff over industry economics as a struggle for power over Hollywood's perceived digital future.
On Thursday night, striking television and movie writers angrily rejected an elaborate package of new proposals from their employers just hours after it was presented. By Friday morning, executives at the country's largest entertainment conglomerates were privately expressing shock that negotiators for the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of America East had dismissed without discussion the first phase of what the companies called a New Economic Partnership.
The proposals were intended to end the strike by offering revised terms for the use of movies and shows on the Internet. But the writers bitterly complained that the package was merely a public relations ploy, failing to meet the guilds' core demands, including an insistence on new- media compensation at a multiple many times what they have received for years from DVD sales.
"You can’t put lipstick on a pig," said Mona Mangan, executive director of the East Coast guild, in a Friday morning telephone interview. "They’re trying to make a statement that they are, in fact, looking for a resolution. It’s illusory."
Talks are set to resume here on Tuesday, and the companies, which are represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, have promised to present additional pieces of their fresh offer. But prospects for resolving what has already become a lengthy strike appeared dim. So far, television audiences and moviegoers have experienced little fallout from the strike. The late-night talk shows, including "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," immediately went dark, and shows like "Two and a Half Men" and "The Office" shut production.
The networks still have several new episodes of most of their series in reserve, and prime time will be relatively unaffected until early next year. Because feature films typically require lead times of a year or more, the strike, even if prolonged, will not significantly affect release schedules until 2009.
For the nonwriting employees of many of the shuttered shows, however, the strike has brought financial hardship. On Friday, for example, NBC laid off the staff members of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
As guild leaders dug in — "we must return to the lines on Monday in force" the presidents of both unions told members in a Thursday night e-mail message — the companies uncorked an offensive of their own. After months of sidestepping discussion of strike issues, studio and network executives worked the telephones with reporters, explaining their positions and signaling resolve at least equal to that of striking writers.
They described their cause as a necessary struggle against union-imposed pay structures and restrictions that, if accepted, would keep their companies from operating effectively in a rowdy Internet world that has already badly damaged the music and news industries.
"I won't participate in writing the death sentence for this industry," said one senior executive, who declined to be identified to avoid making his company a target of writers. This executive and others said the new proposal — with details that were not fully disclosed by either side — had been intended to spur vigorous bargaining by crossing conceptual lines that studios had earlier declared off-limits. It offered a fixed residual for Web-streamed programs that had none under prior proposals, opened the door to payments for digital broadcasts, and offered the guild jurisdiction over new-media productions that are based on work initially done for conventional television, according to a fact-sheet distributed by the producers alliance on Friday.
The new proposal was delivered to guild leaders in a so-called "sidebar" — less than a full session — late Thursday morning, after three days of largely fruitless negotiation that was partly brokered by Bryan Lourd, a prominent talent agent and partner in the Creative Artists Agency. According to people involved with the talks, guild leaders met among themselves, then said they would need until Tuesday to digest the complicated package.
A few hours later, however, a letter from guild leaders blasted the new offer as a "massive rollback," apparently because it offered less for shows distributed via new media than is paid for old. [keep reading]