November 6, 2007

Scenes From a Strike

Checking in with Hedges, Coffey and other NYC scribes on the first day of the WGA work stoppage

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Rat at the Rock: The WGA picket line hits NBC on Day One (Photos: STV)

The Reeler dropped by Rockefeller Plaza on Monday to see what there was to see on Day One of what is shaping up to be a loooong strike by the Writers Guild of America. As per usual, the major industry action is shaking down in Los Angeles, but there was strength -- or, at the very least, volume -- in numbers on 48th Street as picketing scribes scuttled production on The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and other New York TV institutions. Locally shot soap operas like All My Children will freeze in the weeks ahead.

The New York feature film industry, however, may wait a while before feeling the repercussions. Well, sort of: While movies are still being shot and studios like Steiner and Silvercup (where the WGA East is gathering today) are still open for business, the upheaval isn't much help for deadlines.

"We're two writer-directors who just made films we're proud of. We're ready to make more, but we're stopping," said Peter Hedges, whose new film, Dan in Real Life, opened last month and who joined his colleague Adam Brooks on the picket line. "And I think the impact has already happened. There are, I'm told, about 150 movies hurtling into production before the end of March. All these movies about to shoot are without writers."

"Our strategy originally was to strike in June," added Brooks, who recently wrapped his latest writing/directing effort, Definitely, Maybe, in New York. "Some of those won't happen. And some of them won't be able to get the actors they want to get because they're going to say: 'This script isn't ready. I'm not going to be in it.' Movies they thought they were green-lighting with name actors won't get made. The effect won't be immediate to the consumer paying for a ticket, but within the industry the effect is definitely immediate."

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Among the primary issues at stake are the structure for delivering percentages (or "residuals") from sales of DVD's, downloads and other new media. In a nutshell, the WGA has specific cuts in mind (the continually updated blog United Hollywood has the most concise breakdown of union demands), but the producers organization with whom contract talks are stalled is reluctant to quantify those proceeds without a more viable track record. It's a mess that has the likes of Nikki Finke born again and which The Times has been on 24/7, but on which labor leaders say no real progress has been made in months.

"We met for a long period with management [on Sunday], and once again, their offer was to screw us," said WGA East vice president Tom Fontana, the Oz and Homicide creator who saw work on his new show, The Philanthropist, stop as his five staff writers hit the street. "We refused. And I'm not sure what the next step is other than we're here and we're not going to work until we have a contract that's acceptable."

Fontana said The Philanthropist would have started shooting in January, which is around the same time he predicted movie studios would begin feeling more significant economic pressure to settle a work stoppage.

"I did a polish on something last night that I would normally take two weeks to do," said actor-filmmaker Scott Coffey, "Instead I worked the entire weekend to get it in on time. I also had to do a really weird last-minute option deal with a producer: Just in case there's a strike, they can sell the script for six months. I can't go out with it, but the producers can as long as I have an option with them. That was something that my lawyer did on Sunday. There's a lot of that stuff happening."

(L-R) Hold the line: Writer-directors Peter Hedges and Adam Brooks

Coffey, who said he regularly spots segments of his 2004 Naomi Watts comedy Ellie Parker on YouTube, argued for a revised model that could even include revenue sharing with ad-supported video sites. "I was looking at Netflix, and you can download right from there," he told me. "That's not a DVD, and I don't think the current DVD model of residual payments should extend to that. That's a whole different frontier that's being explored more and more. I think the DVD will be extinct in maybe five years; its days are limited. And then it's TiVo and being able to download things whenever you want to. There has to be some kind of model we can agree on."

Brooks estimated the peak crowd to be around 400 when picketers' four-hour shifts overlapped between noon and 1 p.m. The Guild requests its members' attendance at a minimum of three four-hour shifts per week. After today's campaign in Long Island City, the picket line will move Wednesday to Chelsea Piers

"A lot of us only see each other at funerals and openings," Hedges said. "Which, you know, sometimes are the same thing."

"It's scary!" Brooks said. "Everyone's going to pay for a strike. Whatever happens, it's not anything we want or crave. No matter what they say, we're not 'strike-happy.' It's not a rabid crowd calling for blood. Everyone understands what's going on here, and they're going about it in a very reasonable, straight-ahead, constructive manner."

Hedges nodded. "We'd all rather be writing," he said. "Jeez."

Comments (2)

Great report, Stu!

I agree whole-heartedly with the above statement. It's really nice to see a personal story out of the news angle. Great job.

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