Guest Column

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E. Barry Haldeman

It’s getting mean out there

The Writers’ strike is entering its second week with no end in sight. Last Friday an estimated 4,000 writers showed up in front of 20th Century Fox Studios, closing surrounding streets. Strikers heard a parade of speeches and even Jessie Jackson marched. So what’s happening at the bargaining table? Nothing, nada. The producers (studios, networks and individual production companies) and the writers have not met since that fateful Sunday night when, it’s reported, the parties “almost” had a deal when the Writers Guild East sent an e-mail that they were putting up picket lines and talks broke down.

Everyone, it seems, is trying to get the warring parties back together. The major talent agencies have had secret meetings with the writers offering their expertise in deal making. Certain entertainment lawyers are trying to play Henry Kissinger. Arnold Schwarzenegger, wearing his Governator hat, has called his Hollywood contacts, urging the parties to start talking again. Even Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, never one to miss a photo-op, has tried his hand.

Why? Because the strike is affecting this town much more quickly and in ways many did not anticipate. People knew the talk shows would go dark. Leno, Letterman, Kimmel and John Stewart are supported by posses of writers who must stay timely and write up until show time. So it’s late night reruns.

But what was not anticipated is the outpouring of support for the writers from other parts of the town. Some actors are refusing to cross picket lines and even joining them. Leno brought them donuts; Julia Louis-Dreyfus appeared on a picket line at the Toluka Lake location for “Desperate Housewives,” no doubt shaming her fellow thespians.

And showrunners are going out on a big limb. “Showrunners” are TV writers who also produce their own shows. They wear two hats, (known as being a “hyphenate” i.e. writer-producer). One hat belongs to the Writers Guild, but the other hat is almost management. Networks and studios have told showrunners that if they don’t report for work and perform their “producer” (i.e. nonwriter) job, they will be in breach of contract. That’s because a show will not run without them. Yet, scores of showrunners are on the picket line at the risk of personal lawsuits from the studios. As a result, even if actors are willing to show up, and even if there are stockpiled scripts, the show cannot go on and sets are shutting down all over town, putting many out of work.

Movies that are in production are continuing to shoot, but planned films are in a kind of limbo. In many cases, scripts are finished and presumably ready to shoot, but producers, used to having writers available when needed, are getting a bit nervous. What if the director wants to change a scene? What if, in order to attract a big star, you have to “beef up” the part? Who’s going change the script?

So what are the studios doing about all this? They have a business to run. Unlike 1988 when the writers last struck, studios are now owned by big conglomerates that have stockholders to consider and for whom the movie and TV business may be a relatively small part. They don’t seem concerned that Hollywood runs on relationships, even when you are on opposite sides of the table.

As a result you have people like Michael Eisner, former head of Disney, calling the strike “stupid.” You have the studios saying they will not even talk to the writers until they pull down the picket lines-not a realistic scenario.

And in a legally correct, but from a relationship point of view, unwise, move, studios have advised the staffs of writers and producers who have housekeeping deals (meaning the studio pays for their office, assistants, development people, etc.) that their pay will be suspended shortly and possibly terminated if the strike goes on longer. That will put hundreds of support people out of work, making their writer-producer bosses feel somehow responsible.

Studios are rumored to be considering running some productions through English companies, hiring members of the UK Writers Guild (no relation), making our British brethren feel morally squeamish.

What’s going to happen? We all know that the strike will eventually settle, but will the animosity created during this time cast a cloud over the business for the near future? I don’t know.

As Rodney King said, “Can we all get along?”

Stay tuned.

E. Barry Haldeman is an experienced entertainment lawyer with the firm of Jeffer Mangels, Butler and Marmaro LLP in Century City. He represents writers, producers, actors, authors and companies in the entertainment business. He previously served as Executive Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs for Paramount Pictures.