Wanted: Strong voice to pen a happy endingIf ever there were a time that Hollywood needed to put on its collective creative cap, it is now.
This was the week when Lew Wasserman's ghost hung over the Hills more palpably than ever.
Who, it's being asked around town, could fill those shoes, and who — with no disrespect to the hapless federal mediator who got in the middle of things 10 days ago — might now bring the writers and studios back to the bargaining table?
If things worsen, the theory goes, the talks will need someone perceived to be neutral or above the fray: a Sherry Lansing, Skip Brittenham, Tim Russert, Sam Haskell — or even Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bill Clinton.
Given the heightened rhetoric on both sides, that job could be risky and thankless, especially, say, for Clinton. He would need to be brought up to speed, and he probably would want to be paid. And if he failed, it might not bode well for his larger ambassadorial ambitions. On the plus side, he probably could fill a room, which is more than is happening now.
In the absence of any such star coming to the rescue, everything, I've been told conspiratorially, is happening through "back channels."
Out front, however, it's the writers who have seized the high ground, staging pickets at studio lots and galvanizing key showrunners to speak to the cameras. The allegedly "greedy" congloms are being cast in an unflattering light.
As writer Paul Haggis put it, the position of the Hollywood studios not to budge on residuals is part of "the massive corporate greed" that he believes has infected America.
Still, the game is far from over, and the producers might very well become more creative in shaping their own message.
As for the public's take on all this, that too is still unformed — and could shift over time. Right now it's simply quizzical: The writers are getting 4 cents a DVD; they're demanding 8 cents; why can't the sides agree to settle on 6 cents?
Unlike the strike in 1988, viewers have options beyond network TV and the multiplex. The younger ones have long ago switched on their computers, iPods, video games, smart phones and DVD players. So what if "Desperate Housewives" goes off the air?
"A prolonged strike would mean we risk losing a generation of viewers to all these other things," was how NBC Universal's Ben Silverman put it last month.
In short, there may not be a hue and cry from the viewers if primetime devolves into reruns and reality, and even if public indignation were to materialize, the writers might be seen as just as stubborn in their demands as the studios. And almost as rich.
Very instructive on these issues is a book whose publication last week couldn't have been more serendipitous.
Marc Norman's "What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting" could in fact be read as a cautionary tale for both sides in the labor conflict. The screenwriter of "Shakespeare in Love" points out that scripters have always been Hollywood's stepchildren, routinely held in low esteem by the studios.
On the other hand, there have been a number of fruitful periods like the 1970s, when writer-directors had the upper hand and turned out movies that mattered, and that made money.
"The moguls did not understand them; they knew of employees' pride, but pride in their attendance record, their years of service, not the writer's pride that came from making something never before seen … ." Norman was describing the 1930s; in the weeks to come we will see how much that has changed.