Residual Anger : Hollywood Unions on the Brink

Article excerpt

When top entertainment moguls chose Warner Brothers as the site to announce the breakdown of negotiations with unions representing TV and movie writers on March 1, the use of the Burbank studio was rife with historic symbolism. Right outside the doors from where Disney president Robert Iger and Dreamworks' Jeff Katzenberg were speaking, Hollywood had staged a violent clash in its last industrywide labor war. On the morning of October 8, 1945, thousands of picketing film workers, some wearing white-painted civil defense helmets, were confronted by truckloads of scabs who attacked with lead pipes, monkey wrenches and nightsticks, as studio security lobbed tear-gas canisters into their ranks and rifle-bearing LA County deputy sheriffs rounded up the strikers.

No one is expecting a recurrence of such cinematic events anytime soon. But the labor atmosphere in Hollywood in this spring of 2001 hasn't been so tense and volatile since the great strike-lockout of 1945-46--a series of cataclysmic events that led to the defeat of the Hollywood labor left.

The breakoff of talks announced at Warner Brothers by Iger and Katzenberg came after six weeks of preliminary closed-door negotiations between industry employers and leaders of the 11,000-member Writers Guild of America. The WGA film and TV contract expires May 1. Two months later, the contract with the 120,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) also expires.

If no early agreement is reached and the unions go out on strike, virtually all major film and TV production could be shut down, hammering a half-billion-dollar-a-week dent in the Southern California economy. That's not even counting the additional AFTRA TV contracts that expire in the fall.

While WGA vice president Dan Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop and The Big Easy are among his credits) says that a new strike "is in no way inevitable," he warns that "pent-up demand has reached a boiling point, the sort of pressure that produces earthquakes."

One attention-focusing foreshock of such an upheaval was last year's six-month strike in the commercials industry carried out by SAG-AFTRA, the longest actors' walkout in the history of Hollywood. As this year's labor talks loomed, stretched on and collapsed, a feverish production speedup moved through the industry. The studios are flushing every bit of "product" out of their pipelines as quickly as possible. Some studios are retouching old classics for potential re-release. And TV executives are frenetically developing new "reality-based" shows that employ no unionized performers or scribes. The guild actors and writers, meanwhile, are cramming in as much last-minute work as they can, bracing for possible paycheck famine.

Or better said, certain paycheck famine. For even if a strike is averted, "the producers are about to impose a virtual lockout," says a Hollywood union official. No new projects are being undertaken, for fear they might be interrupted by a strike. So under any conditions, a very dry summer is anticipated by all.

In short, an epidemic of nail-biting has swept through the lunch tables at the Ivy and Morton's, as Hollywood steels itself for the showdown.

GLOBAL BOONDOGGLE WITH NO 'BACK END'

At issue, really, is whether the unions will be able to catch up with an industry that has, in the past two decades, "radically restructured itself, vertically, horizontally and globally," as Paul Worthman of AFTRA puts it. What the writers and actors want is better compensation for their work when it appears--or reappears--in the booming cable, Internet, video, DVD and foreign markets. Too often, the artists are paid little or nothing in residuals for such reuse and resale of their work.

When a consumer plops down $25 for a new DVD, for example, the credited screenwriter receives only 4 cents. Much of the current residual formulas date back to the 1980s, when cable and video were infants, when DVDs and the Internet had not yet been born, and when foreign sales represented 30 percent of TV and movie revenues, instead of today's 65 percent. …