This month, the WGAW will elect its president, vice president and secretary-treasurer and eight board members. Even the choice of candidates by the board-appointed nominating committees has rocked the guild's hierarchy. Some committee members claim that the nominations were made to ensure the election of Garrett, who's running for vice president, and her partisans.
Former executive director Gurian says that Garrett has told her that she views the presidency of the guild "as a stepping stone to higher office." Garrett, a three-time Emmy winner, asked about Gurian's comment, said she sees the presidency of the guild as "a heart attack." Asked if that meant she would never run for the WGA presidency, Garrett said, "No."
FLASH BACK TO: "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia."
It began as an inconsequential 1981 movie but it would become the key to a multimillion-dollar misunderstanding.
During a routine 1983 review of royalties paid on the film's videocassette sales, Maureen Holden, the WGA's administrator of residuals, made what she considered a startling discovery: Screenwriter Bob Bonney apparently was being grossly underpaid on his share of the film's royalties. Bonney was being paid 20 cents per cassette, but Holden contended that Bonney should have been paid a dollar, according to her reading of the WGA contract.
Holden took her findings to executive director Gurian. Gurian says she was shocked, even more so when a WGA investigation determined that Bonney's alleged underpayment appeared to be the rule, not an exception. "The industry was cheating the writers, I believed," Gurian said. "Every studio was paying the writers one-fifth of what they were owed on videos. And if the studios were doing it to the writers, they were doing it to every other talent union in town."
The WGA believed the contract called for writers to be paid a royalty based on 100% of a cassette's wholesale price; the producers believed the royalty was to be based on roughly 20% of the wholesale price.
If the WGA was correct in its appraisal, the implications were tremendous. Videocassettes had become the boom entertainment market of the 1980s. This year, approximately 50 million pre-recorded videocassettes (a majority authored by WGA members) are expected to generate wholesale revenues of $1.9 billion, according to the Electronic Industries Assn.
And since the WGA's videocassette contract language--established in 1973--is widely used in the entertainment industry, a misinterpretation of the language could also involve thousands of actors and directors and, thus, huge sums of money.
Gurian, noting that even "stars" like Steven Spielberg might have been short-changed, says the movie industry has underpaid its workers $800 million in videocassette royalties since 1973. The Wall Street Journal put the figure at $200 million--though an attorney for the producers called that figure "overstated."
In April, 1984, the WGA initiated 51 labor arbitrations against the 17 largest film companies seeking to recoup the alleged underpayments to writers. The first of these arbitrations to be heard--in which the WGA sought about $8 million from Paramount Pictures--did not begin in earnest until 11 months later, in March, 1985. The WGA claimed foul, saying the producers were stalling over the matter of who would arbitrate. Meanwhile, the WGA's contract with the producers expired.
WGA attorney Brian Walton (now the guild's new executive director, replacing Gurian) called the producers' tactics "cold-bloodedly Machiavellian in the extreme."
Cold-blooded or not, the tactics were effective. Gurian says she always wanted the arbitrations to be separate from contract negotiations. But with the expiration of the contract, the producers had the chance to move the videocassette issue out of arbitration and onto the bargaining table, where the producers (represented in negotiations by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers) had far more clout and control.
Several WGA negotiators did not see this as cause for panic. They believed that producers would still be willing to make major contract concessions if the guild agreed to drop the arbitrations. The producers, these guild negotiators thought, could not afford to gamble on an arbitrator deciding such a crucial issue. But the producers, according to a source, weren't worried.
In exchange for dropping the arbitrations, the WGA sought to win a possessive credit for its writers. Under a possessive credit, future films would not be billed, say, as "Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest" but as "Ernest Lehman's North by Northwest." Since screen and advertising credits are a writer's primary avenue for recognition, obtaining the possessive credit would be seen as a negotiating triumph.
At the least, negotiators thought, the WGA could drop the arbitrations in return for an increase in a writer's creative control over his work, a raise in minimum salaries and an improvement in affirmative-action guidelines.