A Strike In Search Of A Hollywood Ending

Striking film and television writers picket outside CBS Radford Studios Monday, Jan. 7, 2008, in the Studio City section of Los Angeles. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is hoping last-minute negotiations with the Writers Guild of America will allow the Golden Globes to go on as scheduled on Jan. 13, 2008. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)
AP Photo/Ric Francis
The quips of the late-night TV hosts notwithstanding, the entertainment writers' strike is no laughing matter. From a dearth of new TV shows to Hollywood award shows in peril, the labor stalemate is taking its toll, and at this point there seems no end in sight. Our cover story is reported by Jerry Bowen.

This was supposed to be the day the stars shined over Hollywood - the kick-off of the glitzy, glorious awards season with the Golden Globes.

But this year, the stars are off the red carpet and walking the line - the picket line - with striking members of the Writers Guild.

So with actors unwilling to cross the line, tonight's big Golden Globes gala has been cancelled, replaced by a news conference. And other awards shows, including next month's Oscars, are in jeopardy, too.

Not surprisingly, the main issue is money. The writers of TV shows, films, and late night monologues, want a guaranteed piece of the future, their slice of the Internet world and beyond.

"It's new media. It's the future," said Patric Verrone, the president of the Writers Guild of America West.

"As we move into the internet age," Verrone told CBS News' Jerry Bowen, "we move into new distribution models. The conglomerates seem very reluctant to include writers and actors and directors in their fair share."

The movie studios and television networks agree that determining what that "fair share" is, is the key to a settlement.

Jim Kennedy is spokesman for the AMPTP, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group bargaining with the Writers Guild.

"While the Internet's been around for ten years," said Kennedy, "we're all still exploring this market. It's not an automatic gold mine. There's great potential there, but unless we work together in partnership to find it, find our way together, we can't truly exploit it."

The potential of these new media lies in viewers paying to watch movies and TV shows on their computers or their iPhones, or advertisers paying to run commercials along with the programs.

The tried and true formula is that writers, like actors and directors, are paid residuals. Each time the TV show or movie they've written is re-run on cable, or sold on DVD, they receive a fee. The exception is the Internet.

The networks and studios say they'll talk about how to divide this new media pie, but they walked away from the table over other issues raised by the writers.

"What's really caused the impasse," said Kennedy, "are some additional demands that the Writers Guild have made. They'd like to cover our reality programming or animated programming. And they'd like the power to go out on sympathy strikes if other unions are having a dispute."

"Well, those are issues that are on the table at the moment," said Shawn Ryan. Ryan is the producer of such popular shows as "The Shield" and "The Unit," and he's on the Writers Guild negotiating team. He says those issues aren't the real reason the producers left the bargaining table. "The companies have other issues unrelated to the Internet that are on the table that maybe we don't agree with.

"What they are, are the excuses that the companies have given to strategically pull themselves out of the negotiating room," Ryan said. "They've not talked with us the last month and they're using the excuse of 'Oh, there's a few issues that we just don't agree with.'"

The writers' contract was the first to expire. Directors' and actors' contracts are up this spring and some of the same issues - especially carving up the new media revenues - are sure to come up. Everybody wants a bigger share of the pie.

The fight escalated with the writers' plan to picket the Golden Globes, and if need be, the Oscars. Cancelling the Globes could cost the local economy $70 million, the Oscars as much as $130 million.

"It's like an Olympics boycott where the athletes get hurt and the audiences get hurt but it doesn't reach a resolution to the underlying conflict," said Kennedy

"It doesn't seem like the right time in this town to hold a glib gala with fancy dresses and big diamond necklaces and celebrate the industry when you've got tens of thousands of crew members out of work," argued Ryan. "And it's my hope that if we don't have a deal by Oscar time we'll do the same thing to the Oscars."

The strike is having a huge economic impact. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost and thousands of studio workers have been laid off. They rallied, in vain, to get the talks back on track.

"There's a lot of us here who don't have work anymore because the writers and producers can't get it together to figure something out," said one former studio employee.

"It's too scary to think about," said another, "I don't know. I don't know. We could lose our house. It'll be really tough."

It's a ripple effect. Pam Elyea rents props to TV shows. She's laid off a third of her staff.

"This time of year I should be working on 'Cold Case,'" Elyea said. "I should be doing 'Ghost Whisperer,' 'The Office,' 'My Name Is Earl.' I mean, all those shows come in every week and they rent from us. So not only do I not have those shows, but each of those crews aren't working. Each show I mentioned, that's 110 people out of work."

When the strike began in early November, work stopped on all new scripts. That was less a problem for the movie studios (which stockpiled future projects) than the TV networks (which felt the pain immediately).

Late-night shows went into re-runs, prime time dramas and comedies ran out of fresh material. Long-running shows became instant cliff-hangers, waiting for scripted endings.

"I think both sides are really losing right now," said Brian Lowry, a critic for Variety. He says the ghost of 1988 (the last time writers went on strike, when networks filled the void with novel programming) is looming.

"A very young Fox network launched two shows that are still running today," Lowry said, "which is 'America's Most Wanted' and 'Cops.' And both of those shows were launched because they were unscripted. One issue that the writers have to be concerned about, the longer the writers are out, the more time the networks will have to experiment with reality shows and unscripted shows."

On the network side, there is the potential for losing even more viewers. That was accelerated by the writer's strike of 20 years ago. This time around there are even more options to go to, from cable to the home computer.

"The question is," said Lowry, "as the people find other options, how many of them will really get to like those options and won't come running back when the networks come back and ring the dinner bell again?"

As the impasse continues there are chinks on both sides. Some writers are grumbling over the get-tough strategy of the Guild. A few smaller producers, like Tom Cruise's United Artists, the Weinstein Company, and David Letterman's Worldwide Pants, have struck side deals with the Guild to get writers back on the job.

A-list actors like Tom Hanks and George Clooney are encouraging an end to the dispute.

The next possible development may come with the directors, who started negotiating their new contract with the producers just yesterday. If they reach a deal, it could set a pattern for the writers. Or not.

"They can make a contract with the Directors Guild that really doesn't have much bearing on us," insisted Verrone. "They need to have a contract with us in order to end the strike."

Without that, the winter of walking the line and re-running old shows promises to drag on, in search of a Hollywood ending.