Guest Column

E. Barry Haldeman

Watching Hollywood: Strike? What Strike?

Oct. 31 will mean a lot more to those in the entertainment business than dressing up for parties and making sure you have enough candy for those pirates, ghosts and fairies that show up at your door. No, Halloween marks a significant date for people in the “business,” as so many in Malibu are. It is the date the Writer’s Guild of America Agreement expires.

The Writer’s Guild of America (known as the “WGA”) is the organization that represents virtually all of the writers who write for motion pictures and television in Hollywood. They do not usually refer to themselves as a union, but the fact is they are responsible for setting minimum fees, residuals and conditions under which studios and most producers hire writers. Once a writer joins the WGA, he or she agrees that they will only work for producers and studios that have signed the WGA Agreement, and the producers and studios that sign the Guild Agreement agree that they will only hire WGA writers.

Approximately every three years, the WGA Agreement with producers and studios comes up for renewal. The current WGA Agreement expires this Halloween and the parties are at such odds that there is no renewal in sight. That means that at any time, starting Nov. 1, writers could strike. Thousands of people in the business, including many of your friends and neighbors in Malibu, could be affected.

What’s the problem? Well, among other things, the WGA wants significant changes in how writers participate in receipts from DVDs and new media such as computer downloads and stuff your kids watch on their cell phones.

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DVDs are a big issue. Years ago when video was in its infancy, studios convinced writers that they should only participate in a small share of the income from the “video” media because it was a new and costly business. But in the last several years, “video” has become a big business and, for most films, it is the largest single source of income (generating even more money than receipts from theaters). Yet writers only participate in a small portion of the income from that source and studios keep the rest.

In their defense, studios complain that for every motion picture or television series that makes money, there are many that don’t, and in order to stay in business they have to keep the status quo. There is actually some truth to that, but Hollywood accounting has such a bad rap, no one believes it. And studios also want to “roll back” several hard fought provisions of the WGA Agreement previously won by writers, not a popular position.

What’s going to happen? Well, if the parties cannot reach agreement and if writers actually strike, no writer can work for a studio or producer and no new scripts will be ordered in Hollywood, whether for a TV series or movie. Anticipating this, studios and producers have “stockpiled” scripts and will produce them over the next few months -without writers. Even if the writers do not actually strike, they might as well. Studios and producers are not ordering any new scripts right now so they will not be caught mid-script if there is a strike. The networks have also ordered more reality shows-the WGA Agreement does not govern most of those. So writers will lose fees and will likely be seen on picket lines.

And another big date is looming on the horizon June 30, 2008. That is the expiration date for the agreements between the studios and producers on the one hand, and both the Screen Actors Guild and the Director’s Guild on the other. Both expire on the same day! Those guilds have many of the same issues as the WGA and if those guilds strike, everything in the business will shut down. As a matter of fact, most studios are not starting any new pictures after March 1 of next year in anticipation that there could be a strike.

So you know that neighbor who works like a crazy person on his series, or disappears for months on location-you might see more of him in the near future. 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.

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