Just last week, things were throbbing at the Office, the Santa Monica work space that provides writers with a desk, free coffee and bottled water, and more peace and quiet than could ever exist in any real office. Writers scrambled to finish pilots and screenplays before the strike began Monday at 12:01 a.m.
By Monday afternoon, however, the place was dead. Only half of the Office's 26 ergonomically correct Herman Miller chairs were occupied. By Tuesday, things were worse: after lunch, only five seats were taken.
Presumably, many of the Office's members were out picketing. It's also plausible that writers were staying away out of fear of being seen writing, seeing as many are confused as to what kind of writing constitutes violating the rules of the strike. Suddenly, one of the most commonly asked questions in Hollywood -- "What are you working on?" -- elicits paranoia and vague answers.
Whatever practical or psychological reasons have kept writers out of public work spaces this week, it does not bode well for places like the Office, as well as less official scribe sanctuaries like Santa Monica's 18th Street Coffee House and Silver Lake's the Coffee Table.
For the Office, whose income is generated solely by people who need a place to write, the stakes are particularly high. "If the strike keeps up, I could lose my business," said Office owner Aleks Horvat, over the telephone. "After all, I am a luxury, not a necessity."
Of the Office's 80 members, about 60% write for film or TV; 50% of those are Writers Guild of America members. Many are well-known, such as Darren Star ("Sex and the City") and W. Blake Herron ("The Bourne Identity"). Horvat's fear is that if writers are unemployed for too long, they may cancel their memberships, which run from $350 to $500 a month, plus a one-time joining fee of between $140 and $200. (Memberships vary from weekdays-only to nights-only to 24/7 access; day passes are also available.)
A reversal of fortune would be dramatic for Horvat, considering that since the summer, there has been a waiting list for weekday-only passes. Membership has become such a commodity that Horvat joked, "It's like a New York apartment. Someone would have to die for you to get in."
Over at the 18th Street Coffee House, a favorite of screenwriters (including some Oscar winners), a barista said the strike was a "very real concern."
Although no dramatic change was yet visible at the coffee shop, where about half a dozen screenwriters were staring into laptops, the normally laid-back vibe was slightly more tense. There was talk of the picket lines and of WGA "goons" who might be prowling around, looking to nab scabs.
When Steve Waverly, a WGA screenwriter, was asked what he was working on, he said robotically: "I'm working on nothing and I will be picketing."
Like many writers, Waverly was not entirely certain what kind of writing was permissible during the strike.
According to WGA spokesman Gregg Mitchell, "Writers can write spec scripts, but they have to be truly spec scripts -- outside of any contractual relationship, expressed or implied, with a producer."
But a lot of writers are having trouble deciphering the fine print.
"Surely, we can write a spec, right?" asked Tim Fall, another WGA screenwriter and actor, who had nabbed one of 18th Street's coveted corner booths.
A few minutes later, Fall walked over to Waverly, having resolved the spec issue, sort of. "My lawyer e-mailed me," he said, holding up his BlackBerry. The verdict, he said, was that writers "are not enjoined" from writing spec scripts, but that it was nonetheless "potentially a gray zone."
"Gray zone?" Waverly asked glumly.
"There is so much misinformation about the strike rules that is generating nervousness," said John Gary, a screenwriter who was the only person typing away at the Coffee Table in Silver Lake. Not far away at Intelligentsia, a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard, only two laptops were in sight, neither of them belonging to movie or TV writers.
Colin Mahoney, the manager of Intelligentsia, confirmed that he was "seeing fewer people in here working."
Although the cafe is still frequented by many non-scribbling locals, Mahoney said, "It's always good for any coffee house to have the presence of writers and people involved in the arts. They will leave a big void for us."
Horvat, at least, was looking for a silver lining. "I know for a fact that TV writers who normally go to an office, and who work here at nights and on weekends, will be here," he said. "But they will be writing short stories or memoirs."