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John Wells (illustration by Chris Morris)
Carl Kurlander should be just a little excited that the 1985 Brat Pack classic “St. Elmo’s Fire” is now available on Hulu.com. After all, as “Elmo’s” co-writer, he is entitled to 1.2% of the gross profits the film’s distributor makes from viewings of the film on the ad-supported streaming site. It’s part of the “new media” residual package that the WGA touts as its most significant gain from the 2007-08 strike. But he’s not sure if he’s gotten any money from the deal and he hasn’t seen a bump in residual payments that would warrant seeking out an itemized statement from the WGA.
“Actually participating in a gross that wasn’t diluted would be amazing,” Kurlander says. “But the accounting is always so tricky. It almost seems like we striked over something that is still a futuristic movie.”
WGA West president John Wells understands Kurlander’s frustration.
“(With) these kind of negotiations, you’re making an investment in the future,” he says. “Allowing it to pay off can take a very long time.”
But Kurlander is not alone. Two years after the strike, having endured a contentious guild election last year and a steep downturn in the economy, many WGA members are wondering exactly what they got for all that they gave up.
“Ultimately, I feel like we did the right thing and a line had to be drawn in the sand as far as our benefits (go) and making sure that we are protected as we move into a digital age,” says Natalie Chaidez, co-executive producer on ABC’s “V” and Fox’s “Past Life.” “We had to do it. But it was at some cost.”
A report from the Milken Institute estimated the strike cost the California economy 37,700 jobs and $2.1 billion in lost output through the end of 2008 alone. For many individual writers, it meant walking away from shows that were in production and sacrificing hundreds of thousands of dollars in writer-producer salaries.
Wells acknowledges the sacrifices, but he believes the long-term benefits they engendered will prove to be invaluable.
“The residuals that exist, both the traditional residuals and what we believe will become the new media residuals, are the things that allow writers and actors and directors to support themselves between jobs,” he notes. “I’m firmly in the belief — and I think there are very few people in town who would argue it otherwise — that if we had not been able to establish that we were going to be fairly compensated in new media, that would have had dire consequences for the industry as a whole, over time. (Residuals) allow there to be a large skilled, creative workforce in place for the companies to call upon as their needs arise.”
The strike didn’t occur under Wells’ administration; it was held under previous WGA president Patric Verrone, who termed out last fall. But Wells was active behind the scenes during the negotiations — more so than some in the then-leadership would have liked. Indeed, during the run-up to the guild elections last fall, Verrone and negotiating committee chair John Bowman wrote a letter accusing Wells of negotiating with the DGA behind the WGA’s back. Wells countered that they “were well aware that (he) was talking to members of the DGA” and their statement was a “deliberate and not particularly clever attempt to mischaracterize what I was doing to try and help our cause during the strike.” Bowman replied that they knew Wells was talking to the DGA, but he exceeded his authority by agreeing that the WGA would endorse the other guild’s contract if it reached certain thresholds.
The accusations played to the fears of strike hard-liners who have complained that, as a highly successful writer-producer (“ER,” “The West Wing,” “Southland”) and de facto employer, Wells has a management-friendly mind set and cannot relate to rank and file writers. Wells, who previously served as WGA president from 1999-2001, says that is simply not the case.
“I’m a writer first and I’ve always considered myself a writer,” he argues. “This guild was founded by people who were at the height of their success and the way we were able to found it is: they refused to provide their services unless some things were done to allow the guild to begin. I just see myself as one in a long line of people who’ve been in my position to give back to the organization that took such good care of them.”
Some argue that having a non-contentious relationship with the opposition isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, might have been one of the factors that led to Wells’ election as president.
“I think there was an effort to choose someone (for president) who would negotiate in good faith (and) have an in with the companies,” says Marjorie David, co-executive producer of ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters,” “and John Wells is well-disposed toward everyone and gets along with everyone. As far as all the accusations go, screw it. People worked really hard in that strike.”
Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (“Invictus,” “Sherlock Holmes”) believes Wells is simply the right man for the times.
“It’s like the change of leadership in England after the second World War, when Churchill was a wartime leader, but not a peacetime leader,” says this year’s recipient of the WGA’s Paul Selvin Award. “I see our change to John Wells, whom I support and whom I voted for, as a necessary evolution from wartime to peacetime.”
Wells was able to keep the peace during his first go-around as WGA president, avoiding a strike in 2001 while negotiating a new contract with the AMPTP that achieved gains in residual payments for foreign television and Internet downloads, among other areas.
Verrone was elected president in 2005 as part of the Writers United coalition that pledged to take a tougher stance against the AMPTP. He proved true to his word during the strike, but also irked some by being too tough on writers. Shortly after the strike, Verrone and WGA East president Michael Winship published an open letter on the WGA Web site stating that guild members who filed for financial core status during the strike “must be held at arm’s length by the rest of us and judged accountable.” It included a link to a page with the writers’ names. This led to cries of “blacklist” and an AMPTP filing with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the WGA of unfair business practices.
Controversy also persisted over the Verrone administration’s handling of Jay Leno’s decision to write his monologue for NBC’s “The Tonight Show” during the strike. WGA brass gave Leno the go-ahead on Dec. 31, 2007, agreeing that it was permissible under an AFTRA clause that allows performers to write their own material. A few days later, following angry protests from writers, the guild rescinded permission, but Leno went ahead and did the show, reworking old material for his monologue. In February 2009, the WGA held a hearing to determine whether Leno had violated guild rules, and in September it was revealed that he had been unanimously cleared of all charges, leading to accusations that the WGA brass had withheld the information to save face.
The revelations came on the eve of the WGA election, which saw Wells beating Verrone’s ally, Elias Davis, by 125 votes to take the presidency, while Verrone-endorsed candidate Tom Schulman bested Wells’ ally Howard Michael Gould to take the vp slot. Verrone drew more votes than any other candidate in the election (1,364) to win a seat on the executive board.
“It was a very good reflection on how people felt at the end of the strike,” David says, “which was incredibly ambivalent.”
If guild politics are bad, the economic climate for WGA members is worse. The big spec script sales and the plush development deals that fed the dreams and the pocketbooks of scribes in the 1990s are now largely things of the past.
“The middle-class screenwriter got pretty much wiped out, from what I can tell anecdotally,” says Kurlander, who recently completed the documentary “My Tale of Two Cities,” about his struggle to reinvent his career in his struggling hometown of Pittsburgh. “I know there are some people who are still living like we used to live, but it does seem those people are fewer and fewer.”
The WGA is well aware of the trend. It recently launched a survey of its membership to determine just how bad the current employment climate is for writers. Wells says the data collected will inform its next round of negotiations with the AMPTP, expected to begin late next year in advance of the May 2011 expiration of the current contract.
“The companies are going to be doing what they’re doing, which is trying to spend as little as they can, and yet still keep the town running,” predicts Wells, “and we’re going to be doing what we do, which is look out for the interests of our members. But we don’t want to squeeze the neck of the golden goose.”
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