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Bid to lead writers guild casts spotlight on Chris Keyser

The co-creator of the Fox television series "Party of Five" is locked in an usually close race against the better-known Patric Verrone to become president of Writers Guild of America, West.

September 06, 2011|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • Television writer and producer Chris Keyser is positioning himself as a pragmatic alternative to Patric Verrone. Above, Keyser at his Brentwood home.
Television writer and producer Chris Keyser is positioning himself as… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

Until recently, Chris Keyser was a largely untold story inside the Writers Guild of America, West.

Now he is making waves as an unexpectedly strong contender in the union's upcoming and heated presidential contest. The co-creator of the Fox television series "Party of Five" is locked in an usually close race against the better-known Patric Verrone, a former two-term guild president who led the 8,000-member union during the 2007-08 strike and who remains a polarizing figure.

The outcome of the election, to be announced Sept. 16, is being closely watched because it could set the tone for labor relations in Hollywood, determining whether the guild returns to a more confrontational stance with the studios or maintains the low-key course set by the union's former president, John Wells.

By positioning himself as a pragmatic alternative to Verrone, Keyser has managed to muster support from some of the guild's highest-profile members, including Wells, J.J. Abrams, Susannah Grant and Shawn Ryan, executive producer of the TV series "The Shield." Even several former supporters of Verrone, including screenwriter Robert King, are lining up behind Keyser.

"I've admired Patric's contribution to the guild in the past, but I believe Chris is going to be able to negotiate more effectively with the companies and our sister guilds going forward," said Wells, who helped negotiate a three-year contract for writers in March. Added screenwriter Scott Frank: "We need leaders who understand pragmatism is not code for weakness."

Yet Verrone, a veteran campaigner, can't be counted out. He retains strong support among former strike captains and rank-and-file members, who credit him for waging a successful strike against studios and raising the guild's profile. His biggest supporters include Matthew Weiner, executive producer of the AMC TV show "Mad Men," and screenwriter Paul Haggis.

Verrone says he likes his chances, citing endorsements from 370 guild members. He said he wants to the restore the guild's tradition of activism and knocked his opponent's views on negotiations. "You can talk all you want with these corporations," he said, "but their approach is: do you have leverage to get what you want?"

That's a theme that resonates with Verrone's supporters.

"For the 20 years between the strikes of '88 and 2008, we negotiated 'pragmatically.' The result: Twenty straight years of lost ground and diminished jurisdiction," wrote Alfredo Barrios Jr., a member of the 2011 negotiating committee, in an election statement. "It's folly to think that we and the AMPTP are friends; we're opponents," he said in reference to the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

In an interview at his Brentwood home, Keyser said guild members would be well served by having a new leader.

"With all due respect to Patric, we needed to have somebody else running," he said. "Sometimes new blood and a less-predictable leader is a very good thing."

He agrees the guild's strength derives from having a plausible strike threat, but argues that "saber-rattling" rhetoric can short-circuit meaningful negotiations. "The rhetoric of the people who support Patric is that talk is weak," he said. "I don't believe that."

Nonetheless, the guild won't have to negotiate a new contract until nearer to the May 2014 expiration of the current agreement.

Keyser is no stranger to politics.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was a member of the university's debate team, the 50-year-old TV writer began his career as a lawyer and political speech writer for U.S. presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt.

He even flirted with the idea of moving to Washington to join the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis until he sold a movie pitch, caught the Hollywood bug and moved to Los Angeles in 1988, where he wrote freelance scripts for "L.A. Law" and "Equal Justice."

Although he served on the guild's negotiating committee in 2004, Keyser has kept a low profile. He was elected to the board in 2010 and has served for several years as a trustee of the union's pension and health plan. Keyser said he decided to run for president only after he was asked to do so by the guild's nominating committee.

"Patric [Verrone] gave the guild some remarkable years of service, but his history of leading that strike does not make it easier for him to approach the companies again," Keyser said. "It will be complicated for him to sit across the table as a plausible negotiating partner."

In his 25-five-year career in Hollywood, Keyser has written for movies and TV, worked as a freelancer and executive producer, experiencing his share of successes — including "Party of Five," which ran on Fox for six years — and "Lone Star," the acclaimed TV series that ran only eight days before it was canceled.

"I know what it means to struggle," he said. "Nobody would suggest that I have some kind of special relationships with the studios and networks."

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