Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The New York Times
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November 19, 2007
The Media Equation

Creativity, Strikes and Power

It was a good weekend for the labor that is organized around the creative arts.

Yesterday, Local 1, which represents the striking stagehands of Broadway, was in the midst of intensive talks with theater owners that seem destined to get the “Grinch” and other Broadway productions back in time for the holidays.

Meanwhile, the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike since Nov. 5, agreed to go back to the bargaining table with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, although not until Nov. 26.

On the surface, the writers would seem to have all the cards, and the stagehands few. Hollywood writers fuel a much larger enterprise owned by publicly traded companies, have creative expertise and they even had Ron Howard walking a picket in front of Viacom in New York last Thursday. (When you’re riding with Opie, your cause must be just.)

But the stagehands, who began striking almost a week after the writers, are most likely the ones who will be heading back to work first. The writers still confront the stalemate over distribution of revenues from digital content. So how will 400 or so (mostly) beefy guys in Manhattan accomplish what currently seems beyond the reach of the 12,000 members of the writers’ guild?

Begin with the fact that the stagehands have actual leverage — the ability to shut down moneymaking entertainment that occurs at a specific time and place. Writers are increasingly part of a digital economy, where entertainment comes from every direction, and shutting off the spigot is next to impossible.

The issue was addressed with some unintended irony last week when one of the writers from “The Daily Show” put together a cute, well-written video about the greed and shortsightedness of media companies and studios. The video attacking The Man and championing writers’ rights appeared on The Huffington Post, a busy Web site built on this business plan: hundreds of bloggers who post there aren’t paid.

Just how different are the strikes and the world they confront? In the studios, the writers have an opponent whose interests are not immediately threatened, or necessarily aligned. CBS, now a separate division of Viacom, has no significant movie business, while Sony is not in the television business.

The News Corporation has a significant hedge because it has a huge hit in “American Idol,” a lucrative franchise that could be stretched to cover a multitude of shortfalls. Peter Chernin, the president of the News Corporation, said in a conference call about earnings last week that the walkout is “probably a positive” for the company. “We save more money in term deals, and story costs, and probably the lack of making pilots than we lose in potential advertising.”

Although back-channel efforts by talent agents, politicians and media executives may push the writers’ talks back to the table, the pressure to settle is more intense on Broadway, where millions of dollars immediately started going by the wayside each night the lights were out.

“With Broadway and the stagehands, the value chain begins and ends pretty much with the theaters themselves,” said Ronald L. Seeber, a professor of industrial relations at Cornell. “It’s much more akin to what the auto workers have been fighting about — the number of warm bodies, manning requirements and job duties.”

“The writers want to participate in profits that come from the creative process,” he added. “It has a much longer tail. Right now, I am using a DVD of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ in my classes, a film that is 50 years old and demonstrates the power and longevity of what was created.”

The writers have managed, by some reports, to shut down 50 television shows. Jorge Zamacona, a guild member and writer-producer who got his start on “St. Elsewhere” and most recently served as a writer-producer on “Wanted,” since canceled, said that by refusing to negotiate on the future revenues of digital outlets, the studios seemed to be trying to rub them out of the picture for good.

“They are absolutely trying to break the union,” he said. “My daughter watches streamed versions of ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ and they all include commercials. Why should writers not be paid a small part of that?”

Having recently moved from Los Angeles back to New York, he has watched with interest as the stagehands have moved toward settlement. “They must be dealing with rational human beings who want to their business to continue to thrive.”

With the joint announcement of talks, rationality seemed to be getting a turn after weeks of verbal grenades in the writers’ strike.

“There could easily be a compromise in the writers’ strike right now,” said David Thomson, a film historian. “The studios clearly want to break the union up in order to be ready for what is coming down the road.”

Judd Apatow, a writer-producer who had worked in television and more recently made “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and the forthcoming “Walk Hard,” suggested that the business model that is driving the studios’ hard line is a little backward. Digital or not, well-written content can be a lucrative business.

“One of the problems is a lack of creativity,” he said. “The studios spend enormous amounts of money making these massive spectacles when they could be making much better written, lower cost movies. A few less of those and they could fund a settlement for years. There would be no reason for this strike.”

The stagehands may have what writers want — a working settlement — but the outlook for unions remains grim, whether in pixels or plays.

“Both unions are operating from a defensive position, whether they will admit it or not,” said Peter J. Rachleff, a professor of history at Macalester College. “We are living in a political economy that assumes workers are going to go backwards in almost every instance.”