Why are we asking this now?
Nine weeks into a strike that has brought film and television production ever closer to a standstill, Hollywood's writers have just pulled off their biggest propaganda coup to date sabotaging the glittery Golden Globes award show scheduled for this coming Sunday. The writers announced almost a month ago that they were picketing the event and most likely the Oscars as well and the actors' union quickly made clear that its members would not cross any picket lines in solidarity.
So, how have the organisers reacted?
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association the improbably influential collection of mostly freelance entertainment journalists which runs the Globes finally announced this week that it was replacing the red carpet and formal dinner at the Beverly Hilton hotel with a bare-bones news conference to unveil the winners. And NBC, the network with exclusive rights to the event, decided that it would go ahead and televise the announcements in the hope of spotting a celebrity or two in the hotel lobby. That hope started dwinding almost immediately studio after studio is now cancelling the parties they had originally planned in and around the Beverly Hilton after the ceremony. No point, after all, in throwing a celebrity bash if no celebrities show up.
What effect will the cancellation have?
In objective terms, it's not the most significant development of the walk-out, but it is the one generating the most ink. In a town that lives off buzz, that's no small feat. It means the writers and the actors are still united and still hanging tough. It means NBC facing the prospect of life without its staple diet of scripted dramas and comedies as the writers' stoppage continues is so desperate for fresh programming that it is prepared to devote several hours of prime Sunday-night airtime to a complete non-entity reading out a list from behind a podium. It means the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will be losing a significant chunk of its usual cash cow based on licensing rights, which are in turn based on advertising revenue for which nobody should express the remotest sympathy. And it means the studios will lose a valuable promotional tool to push their prestige titles films like Atonement and No Country For Old Men and Sweeney Todd which rely on the awards season hype to put bums on cinema seats.
Is this going to be a red carpet-free year?
Not quite. A few of the lesser shows will go on as normal. On Monday night, the Critics' Choice awards not an event ever governed by Writers Guild rules went ahead at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Last night, the equally obscure People's Choice awards were also due to proceed as normal. The Screen Actors Guild, with the writers' blessing, will pull out all the stops next month to celebrate the achievements of its own members. But that's about the extent of the opportunities for celebrity designer dress spotting in 2008.
How significant a figure in the strike is George Clooney?
Not very. The Sunday Times reported last weekend that Clooney was being seen as a major force behind the actors' decision not to participate in the Golden Globes or the Oscars but his publicist dismissed the story as "100 per cent false". Clooney is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild, and the Directors Guild and supports the strike. But he isn't directly involved in organising or negotiating anything.
At Monday's Critics' Choice awards, Clooney made clear he was in favour of resolution, not provocation. "Our hope," he said, "is that all the players will lock themselves in a room and not come out until they are done." Daniel Day Lewis, who was named best actor for his role as an unscrupulous oil baron in There Will Be Blood, joked: "It's moments like this that I wish that George Clooney was my speech writer. You haven't a spare speech that I can borrow, have you?"
Are the writers focused just on awards shows?
Far from it. Indeed, their most significant achievement of the week was not to bring an awards show to a halt but rather to negotiate a deal with United Artists, the semi-autonomous production unit under the MGM umbrella which is run by Tom Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner. The deal applies to UA and UA only MGM itself is still off-limits for Writers Guild members. Neither side has gone public with details of the deal, but it marks the biggest triumph to date in the writers' strategy of divide and conquer, which they began to adopt after their last round of negotiations with the studios collapsed in the middle of last month.
Both the Writers Guild and UA issued statements welcoming the deal, while the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, representing the studios, spilled pure bile. "These interim agreements are sideshows," the AMPTP raged. "In the end, until the people in charge at WGA decide to focus on the main event rather than these sideshows, the economic harm being caused by the strike will continue."
Why is the dispute proving so nasty?
To recap: the writers have drawn a line in the sand because they feel they were cheated out of their due from video sales and rentals, starting in the early 1980s, and don't want to acquiesce again now over online and other new media distribution outlets. The producers, meanwhile, regard the writers with ill-disguised contempt and appear to have decided to sit out the strike for as long as it takes in the hope of breaking the union and of taking advantage of the dispute to engineer a radical rethink of network television, whose fortunes have been sliding ever since the advent of cable and satellite.
Where does it all go from here?
The studios want to strike a quick deal with the Directors Guild, whose own contract is up in June, and then use those terms as a weapon to demoralise, divide and defeat both the writers and the actors. The directors are less militant than the other two guilds, and in fact have initiated pre-talks with studio representatives.
The studios are unlikely to talk to the writers again until March; the writers, meanwhile, hope they can survive, economically speaking, until June when there is a chance that the actors, facing the same contract deadline as the directors, will follow them out on strike. At that point Hollywood will be looking either at the biggest shutdown, or if the guilds cave in at the biggest labour disaster in its history.
Will the scriptwriters get what they want?
* They know their future, and the future of organised labour in Hollywood, depends on their standing firm. That's what they're doing
* They have public sympathy on their side; of course they deserve a fair share of profits from shows and films they've helped create
* Their divide-and-conquer strategy is working and will eventually break the power of News Corp, Viacom, Time Warner et al
* The studios know it is just a matter of time before the economic pressure causes the writers to split and, eventually, to crack
* Once a deal with the Directors Guild is sealed, the writers and actors will have no option but to accept similar terms
* Writers always lose labour disputes in Hollywood, and fatalism will eat them up, probably sooner rather than laterReuse content