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A Strike? The Script Is Out of Their Hands

April 20, 2001|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If one wanted to know how miners felt about an oncoming strike, one could just stand outside the mine at closing time and interview dust-strewn workers as they emerged from the dark caverns. Writers are a more elusive bunch, many of whom toil alone, often at home.

So on the eve of the reconvened labor negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the studios, The Times assembled an informal panel of screenwriters to ascertain how some rank-and-file types felt about the potential labor unrest with the May 1 strike deadline looming.

Jan Oxenberg, a supervising producer on ABC's "Once and Again," is holed up eating tofu in the corner booth of Hal's, a concrete-and-art-laden restaurant on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, where they all live. She is joined by fellow writers Rich Wilkes ("Airheads"), Tony Puryear ("Eraser"), Ron Shusett ("Total Recall," "Minority Report"), Topper Lilien ("Where the Money Is") and Jodie Burke, who sold her script "Extremely Complicated Women" last year. Their mood is a mixture of defiance and gallows humor, with an undercurrent of unease that bobs up like an iceberg. All of them are pro-union, in the way most Americans are pro-apple-pie and pro-baseball. The WGA is all that protects them from being "pell-melled mercilessly," notes Shusett, who says that despite having written several hits he has had to resort to the union, merely to get the studios to pay him his fees. Wilkes went to the WGA because his name was left off the video box of the movie he wrote, and the guild forced the studio to reprint the boxes and pay a fine.

"You've got to support the union, but it's like a helpless feeling," says Lilien, a former musician.

"None of us wants a strike," says Wilkes, a gigantic 34-year-old with bleached-blond hair. "But we'll deal with it the best we can."

"It's like saying are we pro-tornado-coming-down-on-our-house," adds Lilien. "It's an act of God. I'm not anti-God."

While some like to joke that the battle between the writers and the studios is just a scuffle between the merely rich and the mega-rich, in truth, the median wage for the 11,500 guild members is $84,000 a year. And in any given year, only half the guild members are actually employed.

All of the Venice panel support themselves by screenwriting--most in fact, quite well. Yet, none has enough money that he or she never has to worry about money again. Even the threat of a strike has taken its toll on these writers.

"I don't know what it's done to marriages at this table, but I've been insufferable," says Lilien, who worked for several months last year on the upcoming "Pearl Harbor."

"I've been walking around for six months going, 'This is the apocalypse.' Because the bottom line is that most writers will find a way to get through, but there will be some Darwinian weeding out."

It's a phrase that sends visible shudders through the other writers, as a few choke back weakly, "Darwinian weeding out. . . ."

"There will be a lot of people who don't make it, and the thing that worries me is that our negotiating team is made up of some very successful people," Lilien says. (The guild is led by John Wells, one of the executive producers of NBC's "ER" and "The West Wing.") "They have to understand that in the 1988 strike [which lasted 22 weeks] I was lucky because I somehow hung on, but it devastated me financially. There are people out there who I just hope that this [strike] won't turn them away--because they have talent."

Indeed, for most working writers, whose careers are divided into hot streaks and cold spells, a strike can mean a crucial loss of momentum--as important to a writer as it is to a basketball team. "The saddest thing is [a career] is all about flow," says Lilien. "A bump like this undoes three years of hard work."

"In normal times, it's not easy getting work. It's so erratic," says Shusett. "When you realize you're not allowed to work, it's terrifying."

"There's a corporate culture in place to keep writers disenfranchised, to make writers anonymous and replaceable," says Puryear. "I think it was John Gregory Dunne who said, 'In Hollywood, the word writers is always used in the plural, as in I can always get more writers.' "

Not Just Dollars, but Respect Too

To a person, the writers agree with union demands for better residuals for foreign sales and cable TV. Burke is happy that the guild minimums are slated to go up. "Not everyone hits a million-dollar payday on their first spec sale--the ones you don't read about on the front page of Variety," she says.

A fourth of the working members of the guild only make the minimum, which is $88,614 for an original screenplay, but $23,611 for a rewrite and $11,800 for a polish, either of which could easily consume six months of a writer's time. They all chortle when they think that all that separates the two sides (according to the WGA figures) is $100 million spread over three years.

"You know what $100 million buys you? One bad movie!" crows Puryear.

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