Over and over, the attitude expressed on the lines was one of calm, cool determination to stick it out for a "fair deal." Despite the early predictions that the Writers Guild of America membership would be split along income-strata lines, there is no doubt that writers of all stripes, of all levels of experience and success are fired up by the feeling that the major congloms have been hosing them for years.
The WGA leadership has expertly built on that foundation of pent-up ire to help scribes gird for the strike that many rightly predicted was inevitable. On Friday (Nov. 9) at the mega-rally of at least 4,000 guild members and industry supporters held outside the Fox Plaza building in Century City, guild leaders and guest speakers including the Rev. Jesse Jackson very clearly drew a line between the WGA strike -- disparaged by some as a rich union's attempt to paint itself as blue-collar -- and the growing income disparity that has cleaved the nation into the super-haves, the haven't enoughs, the have-nots and the have nothings during the past 40 years.
"If they gave us everything that we're asking for, and then they went and did the same deal with the DGA and SAG, they would still be giving all of us less than each of their CEOs makes in a year," WGA West prexy Patric Verrone asserted to a receptive crowd on Friday.
(Can't absolutely vouch for Verrone's math, but we've all seen the studies on CEO pay gone wild and the widening gulf between the salaries of top execs and lowest-paid workers at many corporations.) A picket sign in the crowd featured an unflattering picture of News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin, with "$34 million last year" scrawled underneath.
Seth MacFarlane, a wunderkind who scored his first multimillion payday before he was 30 with a hit animated Fox series "Family Guy," was a savvy choice by the guild to address the rally. His is a voice representing both the future of the guild and the promise that the biz holds to make (very lucky) people fabulously wealthy on the strength of a great idea. MacFarlane (pictured below) made a point of urging his fellow high-earners to keep paying their freshly laid off assistants for as long as possible. And he urged "the press" to get the message out to the general public that WGA members are, in the main, members of the five-figure annual income middle class, not the six-, seven-, eight-figure and above ultra-elite.
"Writers in this guild are not millionaires," MacFarlane stressed. "The royalties we're fighting for will make a big difference to them."
(Above pic snapped by Michelle Sobrino-Stearns/Variety)
WGA West exec director David Young has drawn scoffs from industry figures since the day he joined the guild three years ago because of his background of organizing in hard-core blue-collar sectors a la carpenters and textile workers. He didn't win over any of his detractors by addressing the crowd Friday as "brothers and sisters."
"We're involved in a huge struggle," Young said. "We're part of the bigger struggle of the middle class and the power concentration in this country. The middle class is (gradually losing) pension and health benefits, overtime and unemployment benefits...It's time to put a stop to that."
There is also a pervasive sense among striking scribes that the only way showbiz writers have ever made advances on compensation has been through the force of withholding their services. (Historians might take exception with such a blanket statement, but it wouldn't matter; it is the gospel on the front lines.)
"I'm a guy who won the lottery," said "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Phil Rosenthal. "But I only have what I have because somebody struck for it before me. I feel like it's an honor and a privilege to be here on behalf of the next generation of writers."
Judd Apatow, a multihyphenate who couldn't be hotter after the summer of "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," was quick to note on Friday that he stands to earn more on music royalties for each sale or performance of a song he penned for his upcoming pic "Walk Hard" than he does on the considerable DVD of his pics (9 cents for the tune versus 4 cents for a DVD, per Apatow.)
"My basic thing is: Whatever we get is going to be way worse than what we deserve," Apatow said. "We have to fight this hard and we'll still not reach one percent" of revenue generated worldwide by film and TV productions.
The relative puny-ness of the 4-cents-per-unit homevideo residual rate is a visceral issue for many members. And new media is the new homevid. The strikers are excersized about the fact that all of the major networks in some degree are offering Web streaming of full-length programs -- embedded with advertising from the same high-end brands that also buy commercials the old-fashioned way -- without paying a penny to scribes, as they would have to if those repeats were airing on broadcast or cable TV.
These facts are powerful motivators for scribes young and old. Many of those that have been in the game long enough to recall the last WGA strike in 1988 point out that a big difference between now and then is that there is virtually no divide between film and TV scribes.
For starters, there's been a well-documented blurring of the lines between bigscreen and smallscreen types, and scribes routinely cross back and forth from film and TV projects. And the two overriding issues of DVD and new media cuts across all boundaries, thanks to the advent of TV-to-DVD sales and Internet on-demand services. "We're all in this together" is a truism this time around that has had a powerful bonding effect.
Will the impact of the rabble-rousing and the real-life pocketbook issues turn a generation of scribes into scythe-wielding Dennis Kucinich supporters? Probably not. Will it make the generation of twenty- and thirtysomethings in the guild more sensitive to broader concerns of income disparity in the United States? Probably so, at least for a little while, particularly as we head into an election year.
The suggestion has been raised on the picket lines that the signatory companies of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are prepared to tough out a long strike in an effort to "crush" the guild once and for all. But I don't buy it. By the standards of virtually every other major industry in this country, Hollywood (and its extensions) remains a heavily unionized town. It's in the DNA of the creative sector, thanks to those pioneers (James Cagney, Frances Marion, King Vidor, to name but a few) who fought the good fights in the 1930s. There may be hawks among the conglom-CEOs, but I don't think there are any bomb-throwing anarchists.
There has been plenty of cynicism, however, at the management level about the determination of the WGA in particular after the romance of the first few days of the walkout fades. From the abundance of first-hand accounts available (thank you, blogdom), the fists have only become more clenched as week one drew to a close.
The major networks saw their hit shows fall more quickly than even the guild predicted at the outset as top showrunners en masse balked at helping the nets eke out a few more episodes by performing non-writing chores. A cold-hearted strategy of waiting 'em out is going to be arduous for the business side as well. Barring an "American Idol"-sized miracle, no reality show is going to match the aud that "Grey's Anatomy" delivers to ABC. Ditto for CBS and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," etc., etc.
Based on the events of the past week, the longer the guild goes without a return to the table with the AMPTP, the more the scribes will be convinced in the righteousness of their cause. For the foreseeable future, the rank-and-file will heed Young's closing remarks to the rally: "Suck it up and stick it out. We shall prevail."
(Pooch pic by Michael Jones/Variety; Seth MacFarlane pic by Michelle Sobrino-Stearns/Variety)