5 Questions for John Wells

Joe Pugliese

The ‘Company Men’ writer-director on a second stint as WGA West president.

John Wells (ER, The West Wing) had decades of experience leading writing staffs when he was elected for a second term as president of the WGA West in fall 2009. Wells recently talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the biggest test of his presidency — negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers — potential fallout for guild members from the Comcast-NBC Universal merger and how he feels about The Company Men not being released in time for Oscar consideration.

The WGA’s contract with the AMPTP expires May 1. Do SAG and the DGA’s recent negotiations affect your strategy?

The advances of both SAG and the DGA in the pension and health plans after the economic difficulties of 2008 that everybody in the country experienced, shoring up those very necessary parts of our contract, are important. But there are any number of other areas that are specific to writers’ interests that aren’t really affected by the negotiations with the other two guilds. Obviously, we negotiate in a framework in which some of the areas of our contract are very similar to areas in the DGA and SAG contracts. We’ll have to deal with those across the table.

One of the most significant events in the business this year was the Comcast-NBC Universal merger. On Jan. 19, the WGA West issued a statement that criticized the Justice Department’s approval of the merger, saying it was not in the public or your members’ interests. Why?

That’s based on the historical fact that many of our members have been disadvantaged by these large conglomerates. Any time you have less competition and you are someone who sells something — in our case, scripts — it means fewer buyers, fewer jobs and lower prices. That’s Economics 101. So for that part of it, we believe the larger consolidation of the industry hasn’t been in our members’ best interest.

Many members were frustrated that sacrifices during the 2007-08 strike outweighed the gains. Is this still a prevalent feeling?

I think people have moved on in their lives. It was a very difficult time, and a lot of people sacrificed a great deal for it. I believe in the long run it’s going to have been worthwhile. But every single time there’s been a major change in the distribution system, there’s been a writers strike to try to make certain we have jurisdiction over it. Over time, those things actually become very valuable, so the time frame over which you have to gauge it is decades, not two or three years.

You were part of THR’s Writers Roundtable last fall when Aaron Sorkin said the “vast majority of WGA members … are not employed.” Is that true?

No. That’s left over from 25 years ago, in terms of the thinking. We have a system in which the vast majority of our members are employed on a regular basis. If you’re using a one-year percentage, it’s around 50 percent of the membership. The group that’s not employed … many of those members write on spec and do other things. We have a lot of Academy Award-winning writers who aren’t employed in any given year because of the way in which screenwriters actually work.

You recently made your feature directorial debut with The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones. How did you feel about the film being released too late for Oscar consideration?

I didn’t really expect it to be in Oscar contention. I’m very proud of the film. I was able to work with some great actors, and Roger Deakins is a wonderful cinematographer. It’s in theaters and just starting to widen out. I’m hoping people will see it now.           

WGA Awards
Saturday, Feb. 5
Hollywood & Highland