A war of words: Writers' block - the strike starts to bite

After seven weeks, Hollywood is waking up to the impact of the screenwriters' labour dispute: if it isn't resolved soon, the Golden Globes and the Oscars could be cancelled. By Andrew Gumbel
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What if Hollywood held an awards ceremony, and nobody showed up? Greater disasters have, of course, befallen the planet, and there is certainly an argument to be made that the over-gaudy spectacle of diamond-encrusted self-congratulation that sweeps the entertainment industry for the first two months of each year could use a little course correction.

Still the fact remains: the worst industrial dispute to hit Hollywood in two decades is about to close down the Oscars. And the Golden Globes. And who knows how many other glitz fests where the battles between Atonement, Sweeney Todd, No Country For Old Men and the other nominees would ordinarily be eclipsed only by the battles between Armani, Prada and Valentino.

Hollywood's film and television writers are in the seventh week of a strike that shows no signs of ending any time soon, and its effects are beginning to bite, and bite hard. At a rowdy meeting in the beach town of Santa Monica on Monday night, the Writers Guild membership threw down its latest gauntlet refusing to grant a waiver for the Golden Globes awards show on 13 January, which means no participation by any writers or their sympathisers, including the actors' union, and turning down an initial request by the motion picture Academy to show movie or television clips at the Oscars in February.

Barring some miraculous resolution over the next few weeks which both sides say looks impossible the red carpets will be empty of the usual familiar faces, and the shows themselves, devoid of the usual comedic banter as well as actual stars to hand the awards to, will have all the allure and razzle-dazzle of an employee-of-the-month ceremony at a second-hand car showroom.

As the head of the Writers Guild West Coast branch, Patric Verrone, put it: "Writers are engaged in a crucial struggle to achieve a collective bargaining agreement that will protect their compensation and intellectual property rights now and in the future."

A first superficial glance suggests the dispute is turning very much in the writers' favour. They have shown remarkable unity of purpose in their quest to seek fair compensation for use of their work through new media outlets the internet, mobile phones, and the rest and a striking degree of consistency in their line that they were cheated out of their fair share of the video and DVD market, starting back in the 1980s, and have no intention of being cheated all over again.

They closed down the late-night chat shows and satirical fake newscasts on day one. They persuaded the so-called show-runners writer-producers who commission, guide and polish scripts to come out on strike with the rank and file, thus greatly speeding the rate at which popular series such as Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and Lost ran out of material and were forced into reruns.

Assuming the strike lasts into January and beyond, they will effectively sabotage next autumn's line-up of new television shows, because no writers means no pilot episodes for network executives to view and test-run. The studios had to give a lot of money back to advertisers in October because their audience figures before the strike did not live up to expectations, and they are preparing to give back a whole lot more because the November showcase known as "sweeps week", the basis for calculating future advertising rates, was overshadowed by the start of the walkout.

Where the writers are leading, the actors are following close behind. The Screen Actors Guild contract is up for renewal in June, and the thinking is that the writers will either win a settlement that the actors can piggyback on to or, in the event that the current strike continues for another six months, the two Guilds will make common cause and bring the entire entertainment behemoth to a screeching halt. "Your fight is our fight," SAG's president, Alan Rosenberg, told his writer friends this week. "We are proud to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with you and SAG will be there for as long as it takes."

The impression that the writers are slowly bringing all of Hollywood to its knees is, however, a misleading one. First off, pain is not a one-way street and the writers are taking their own hard knocks. Already, the stoppage has lost the writers $100m (50m) or more in lost pay cheques. In a plummeting property market and a stagnant economy, that means real worry about meeting mortgage payments and keeping family budgets afloat worries that will only increase with every passing week.

The studios have already suspended standing deals with many writers and have the power, as of this week, to invoke force majeure and cancel those deals outright if they choose to. That's not without its advantages: it's an opportunity for the boss class to cut out a lot of dead wood and free up funds to commission new sorts of shows, shows that do not depend on unionised writers the whole genre of reality programming, for starters and can often garner good audience ratings at a fraction of the production costs of scripted comedy and drama.

Then there is the ugly fact that Hollywood's creative workers are not as united as the WGA leadership would like to think. True, the actors are right there with them. But the Directors Guild, whose contract is also up for renewal in June, is a whole different story. The writers and actors are pushing for better residuals extra payments for reruns and reformulations of their work in other media like DVDs and the internet because they don't always have regular work and rely on the success of past shows and films to see them through the fallow periods.

Directors, by contrast, don't care nearly as much about residuals because they tend to be paid much more upfront. Big-name directors can secure lucrative, so-called, "back-end" deals through one-on-one negotiation brokered by their agents, so they don't need the minimums that any union deal might guarantee. At the other end of the scale, the assistant and second-unit directors who make up about 40 per cent of the DGA's membership don't care about residuals because they are considered "below the line" Hollywood's equivalent of blue-collar workers along with the gaffers and grips and camera operators and don't qualify for any kind of profit-sharing in the first place.

Here's what, in the opinion of many writers and studio executives alike, the next few months might look like. The producers association will give up on talking to the writers in fact it gave up last week, much to the fury of the WGA and focus instead on brokering a deal with the directors. The DGA talks will probably begin in January and, barring some big sticking point, wrap up in February or early March. At that point the guilds will be split, the writers will be hungry for work and a sizeable faction is likely to emerge to challenge the hard line adopted by the WGA leadership. Maybe the strike will last long enough to bring the actors on board, maybe it won't but sooner or later the writers will have to realise they don't have anything like the deep pockets of the media conglomerates who own the studios and the networks, and they will be forced to give in.

Why do some of Hollywood's sharpest minds think the writers will lose? In short, because they always do. In 1988, they walked out for five months because they felt short-changed and cheated over video residuals a stoppage that netted them precisely nothing. Their powerlessness has a lot to do with Hollywood tradition. When car workers go on strike, they target just one big company Ford, or General Motors and hope the competitive disadvantage felt by that company will pressure them into making a deal. But the writers are striking against every single major media conglomerate Disney, and News Corp, and Viacom and Time Warner, and the rest. Just one would probably be too much on its own; taking on all of them at once is reaching for the impossible.

That explains, perhaps, why the WGA has belatedly decided to negotiate with the studios one-on-one a proposal the producers are now in a position to laugh off and allowed independent production companies, such as the one that produces David Letterman's late-night chat show on CBS, to reach its own deal with its writers. Others writers are trying to go it alone, raising venture capital to generate shows that will bypass traditional media altogether and air directly online. How that might fare without a big distributor behind it is anybody's guess.

At an informal discussion among writers and producers in Los Angeles over the weekend its contents off the record to maximise frankness those most sympathetic to the writers' cause (who of course deserve to share in the profits of the programmes they have created) were also most gloomy about their prospects of success. They should have forgotten about digital media for now, one argued, and focused on DVDs, which are sure to be big sellers for the foreseeable future. Instead, the WGA has dropped its demands to double residuals on DVD sales and gone all-out for a deal on online content.

Some writers also questioned just how bad the past 20 years have been. True, they have been screwed over video earnings, but the explosion of cable TV has dramatically increased the number of lucrative writing jobs. "These have been bonanza years for our industry," one prominent comedy writer said. "A lot of writers are sitting very comfortably in $1.5m houses."

That line provoked immediate objections from the floor. "$1.5m isn't what it used to be!" a fellow writer howled.

Such are the parameters of one of the world's weirder labour disputes. And so far Oscars notwithstanding the executive class has barely broken a sweat.