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E. Barry Haldeman

‘Lights, camera, action’: Directors enter the WGA fray

SCENE: EXTERIOR HOLLYWOOD AND VINE. DAY. A BATTLE IS IN PROGRESS.

In the middle of the street, a group of writers wearing red T-shirts and swinging placards are in hand-to-hand combat with an army of executives dressed in identical camouflage-colored business suits, black baseball caps and sunglasses. It’s hard to tell who’s winning, but there seem to be more writers down than executives. Suddenly, A BUGLE SOUNDS. CAMERA PULLS BACK to reveal a group of riders galloping up Vine Street. Atop white horses, they are all wearing white hats and white satin movie jackets with “Director” written on the back. THE MUSIC SWELLS as a crowd of shopkeepers on the sidewalk cheers.

This is the scene that many hope for: directors, who are about to start negotiating their own agreement with producers, will arrive like the cavalry and resolve the common issues separating producers and writers.

Someone’s got to do something. Writers and producers have not talked since before Christmas and there are no plans to meet. Thousands of people are out of work. Both sides seem to be holding firm, although Monday there was a crack in the dike. United Artists, which has released only one film since it was recently taken over and revived by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, announced it will sign an “interim” agreement with the writers. It is also rumored that the Weinstein Company, started by those jovial guys Harvey and Bob, is contemplating doing the same, as is Lionsgate, an independent but prolific distributor, and Lucasfilm. The major studios will not be happy about this break in ranks.

On the late night TV circuit there is also a crack. All hosts have returned. David Letterman, who owns and produces both his show and the “Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” has signed an interim agreement with the writers. Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart, whose shows are owned by their networks, are not allowed to sign with the writers. Result: Letterman and Ferguson now use presumably funny Writers Guild members for their monologues and there will be no picket lines, so actors can appear on the shows without feeling like strike breakers. Not so the other guys. They have to ad lib and rely on appearances by people like the 100-year-old woman who knitted a mile-long shawl out of pine needles.

In a bizarre twist, Leno was rapped on the knuckles by the Writers Guild for writing his own monologue (as he did for years doing stand up in clubs) because he is a guild member and is technically writing for a “struck company,” NBC. Go figure.

The Golden Globes were set for Sunday. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association ceremony was to be produced for television by Dick Clark Productions, a “struck company.” Clark had asked to sign an interim writers agreement so it could employ writers and avoid picket lines, which actors said they would not cross. But the writers said: “No, we don’t think so.” Result: no telecast and no ceremony.

What is this “interim agreement” with writers anyway? The agreement (offered to some) accepts basically all the terms the writers want and allows writers to work for the signing company. But the agreement probably has a “favored nations” clause. That means that when the studios finally sign with the writers, all the interim agreement companies will get the benefit of any better terms the studios obtain from the writers.

So, can the directors make it all go away? Don’t know.

Gil Cates, who leads the director’s negotiating committee, is an experienced Hollywood veteran. He has been through many negotiations and is respected by the business. Studios would no doubt rather deal with him than the Writers Guild. (P.S. He also happens to be the producer of the Oscars, which might have a similar fate to the Globes if the major issues are not settled.)

And will the writers accept what the directors negotiate?

SCENE: EXTERIOR. HOLLYWOOD AND VINE. DUSK.

The directors and producers are sitting around a big campfire, laughing and joking. They are passing around a peace pipe and taking big puffs. A group of writers with long questioning faces is on the outside of the circle watching. One writer turns to the other:

Writer #1: What are they smoking?

Writer #2: Dunno. FADE OUT

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.