Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Morning After

Well, it worked. Along with incumbent Aaron Mendelsohn, I’ve been elected to the WGAw Board as one of the first two candidates to run successfully without Patric Verrone’s endorsement since 2004.

A closer look at the election results reveals some other positives:

- Along with Katherine Fugate and John Bowman, I was one of only three candidates to be listed on over half the returned ballots. (No other candidate was listed on as many as 45%.)

- While all five incumbents were re-elected, non-incumbents finished 1st, 3rd and 5th, a sign that the call for new voices was heard. Katherine Fugate and Karen Harris (who was 5th), while supported by Writers United, are both independent thinkers whom I expect will be strong Board members.

- Kat Smith, another excellent, fully independent candidate whom I got to know better during the campaign, finished an excruciatingly close 9th, just five votes behind Kathy Kiernan. This makes Kat next in line to take a Board seat in case a vacancy arises, as does happen.

I would have loved to see Kat make it into the top eight, but otherwise, from my point of view, this election couldn’t have gone much better. I look forward to a reunion of sorts with Bowman, Mendelsohn, Mark Gunn, and David Goodman, with whom I worked on the Negotiating Committee, and all of whom have served the membership tremendously well both there and on the Board. Karen Harris’s election puts a daytime writer on the Board, a very positive development.

Above all, given this year’s list of candidates, I can’t imagine a set of results which would have given a stronger endorsement to the notions of greater independent thought and of moving beyond single-party Guild politics.

Now on to the thank you’s.

First off, I want to thank all of you who’ve been reading this blog for your support, and for your e-mails, and for sharpening my own thinking with your comments these last couple of months.

I want to thank everyone who voted for me, everyone who asked other people to vote for me, and especially the couple dozen people who supported me most actively and tangibly. It was shocking and humbling to see writers throw themselves behind a sole independent candidate, and I can barely express my gratitude. Special mention here goes to the remarkable Cheryl Heuton, who figured out how to pull it all together, inspiring a much more active campaign than I’d ever anticipated running.

My final and most emotional thank you goes to my extraordinary brothers and sisters in arms from the 2007-08 Negotiating Committee who endorsed me and supported me in all sorts of ways. Not only couldn’t I have done this without them, but I simply wouldn’t have. They inspired me then and still do, and here’s hoping a few more of them run for the Board themselves next year.

I’m going to end this post with a question for anyone who may still be reading:

Would you like me to continue this blog? Should I post once or twice a month on what’s going on, with my new view from the inside (which would be somewhat fettered, of course, by obligations of confidentiality)?

Blogspot doesn’t let me know how many people are visiting to check out my rambles -- the only feedback has been your stream of e-mails or the random approaches at a Guild event or a coffee shop. So if you think there’s a value to my keeping this up, please drop me a line to let me know you’re reading:

If you’re still out there, I’ll still be here.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Candidates Night

This Wenesday, September 3rd, is Candidates Night at the Guild. There’s a dinner from 6:00 to 7:30, and then from 7:30 to 9:30 it’s two hours of brief candidate statements and a Q+A session. I don’t know if the Guild is still accepting RSVP’s, but if you haven’t made plans to go and are interested, I suggest calling 323/782-4602 on Tuesday.

If you’re on this site, you’ve been reading what I have to say, but I highly encourage you to come hear everyone else. I’ve never met most of my fellow candidates and I’ve myself only decided what to do with about half my ballot, so I’m looking forward to this.

My own attentiveness to the Guild began at one of these off-year Candidates Nights, the one in 2000. There may have been more candidates at the front of the room than members in the seats. But listening to 16 members concerned enough about our Guild to make the commitment to run and to serve was the beginning of my education.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Failure of Democracy, Continued

Last month I wrote a post called “Failure of Democracy” which began:

“In the WGAw today, every single officer, every single member of the Board of Directors -- that’s 19 elected leaders in all -- either ran on a slate under the current president or under his endorsement.”

I went on to talk about how the Board had thus become a political tool rather than the philosophically heterogeneous deliberative body most of us naturally assume it to be.

Not surprisingly, this made current Board members unhappy. I know, because I’ve heard from a number of them. Some are friends, too, which doesn’t make this easy. I suppose I owe it to them, and to the rest of you reading, to back up my assertions a bit and to show that that first post wasn’t just political demagoguery.

See, it all actually started with a little cold analysis.

When I heard that most of the Writers United members were going to join together in a collective endorsement of eight candidates in this year’s election (a bit of an escalation from the off-year election of 2006), I got to wondering: how has Writers United’s heightened politicization of the Guild affected the way our Guild actually works?

Before diving in here, I want to point to the Guild Constitution, which says that the Board “shall have the exclusive power and authority to direct the affairs of the Guild,” and that the president “shall act as a spokesperson for the Guild.” Now, I don’t regard the WGA Constitution with the quasi-religious awe I save for the United States Constitution, but this seems like a good idea to me: a representative democracy selects sixteen of our best and brightest, and issue by issue they’ll deliberate until they find what they believe to be the best course.

You’re probably ahead of me right now, aren’t you? Well, here goes anyway. (Bear with me; it gets a little geeky.)

The minutes of all Board meetings are available on the WGA website. So I sat down for an hour one night with a legal pad, and buzzed through, counting votes at each meeting: how many were unanimous, how many were near-unanimous (one or two “no” votes on a resolution), and how many were contested (defined very liberally as three or more “no” votes). I did this for the first 25 meetings after which it was true that every single member had been elected with the current president’s endorsement (9/25/06-5/19/08).

Then, for comparison’s sake, I went back and did the same thing for the last 25 meetings of the pre-Writers United Board (1/26/04- 8/29/05).

Remember, these 20 months of the Writers United Board encompassed the lead-up to a strike, the strike itself, and its aftermath –- a time in which wrenching policy questions arose continually. Will we accept early negotiations if the studios offer them? Do we tack closer to SAG or to the DGA? What will our strike rules look like? How will we discipline writers who break them? Will we ask showrunners not to complete non-writing services on shows already produced, and risk lawsuits for breach? What legal services will we provide those who do? Will we support location pickets, trying to shut down productions? Will we first consult the member-writers whose work we’d be shutting down? What about interim deals –- should we offer them? And to whom -- to Letterman, but not Leno? And on and on: once the fit hits the shan, there are scores and scores and scores of tough ones like these.

So you’d think that the wartime Board, the Writers United Board, would be voting twice as often, three times as often as the peacetime Board, maybe even more. Wouldn’t you?

Guess what.

The current Board voted a total of 97 times in that period.

The pre-Writers United Board, in peacetime, voted 189 times.

The Writers United Board voted half as often -- on anything -- even as it took us through a strike.

That’s astonishing. So astonishing, in fact, that I’ll say it again:

The Writers United Board voted half as often -- on anything -- even as it took us through a strike.

(By the way, I excluded “approval of the minutes of the last meeting” votes, which literally are a rubber stamp. Also, if anyone does repeat this experiment and finds I’m off by a hair, I’ll happily publish a correction.)

Now let’s look at the breakdown of votes:

Pre-Writers United (189 votes): 125 unanimous, 34 near-unanimous, 30 contested.

Writers United (97 votes): 74 unanimous, 19 near-unanimous, 4 contested.

That’s right: defining “disagreement” so loosely as to require only three “no” votes on a motion, this Board took us all the way through a strike and disagreed a total of four times in almost two years.

The pre-Writers United Board disagreed thirty times, in peacetime.

The current monochromatic Board simply doesn’t disagree. 96% of the votes they did take were unanimous or near-unanimous. 96%.

And because the Board already knows it won’t disagree, it doesn’t even insist on its deliberative role. It’s apparently content to let the president set policy (consulting, presumably, with paid staff more than with the Board itself).

Completing the turn of the Constitution onto its head, the Board instead has taken on much of the president’s role as spokesman, tirelessly and enthusiastically, outreach after outreach.

So in that sense, it was perhaps unfair of me to describe the Board as “nothing more than a rubber stamp.”

But in the pure sense of the Board’s neglect in exercising its constitutional responsibility “to direct the affairs of the Guild,” well, I’m going to stand by that characterization, strong though it is.

Of course, a non-insider reading this may be asking, “Does this really matter? Who cares who sets policy?”

Well, I guess the heart of my campaign is the idea that it does matter, and that you ought to care.

Look at any of the issues I’ve talked about on this blog over the last two months, and, whether you agree with me or not, ask yourself whether you want these questions decided for the Guild by one leader with a strong and specific ideological bent, or by a heterogeneous, philosophically diverse sixteen member committee, deliberating its way toward the best course for us all.

Think about questions like:

- ought we reverse course and try to mend fences with the DGA?

- do we actively try to get better at enforcement, and if so, where do we find the resources?

- should we offer to put reality writers under a separate MBA?

- how should we be talking in the press about the SIT DOWN, SHUT UP writers?

- looking to 2011, do we repeat the brinksmanship of 2005-08 even if that might well mean steering us toward another strike, or do we try to get better at talking to people even when what they have to say isn’t what we want to hear?

Think about those questions, and think about who you want answering them for you.

The ballots are going out this week.

What kind of Board do you want?


You can find the original post to which I refer here:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Campaign Events

I'm very pleased to be able to tell you that thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Dan Petrie, Jr., Carol Mendelsohn, and a number of other members, mailers will be going out today announcing a couple of campaign events, evenings at which I'll get to meet more of you and talk face to face about our Guild.

Here's the info:

Monday, August 25th

7:00-9:00 pm

at the home of

Dan Petrie, Jr.

18141 Medley Drive

Encino, CA 91316

Tuesday, August 26th

7:00-9:00 pm

at the home of

Carol Mendelsohn

827 Devon Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 90024

Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Shall Ever the Twain Meet?

One of the valuable but relatively unheralded things which the Writers United leadership has done in the last few years is ease tensions between the WGA West and the WGA East.

This was not without controversy; some of the people I most respect regarding Guild matters felt we took the wrong course, that we were too “soft” on the East. This involved, among other things, forgiving large sums which apparently the East owed us but hadn’t been paying. It seemed to me, though, that in the bigger picture, forging a healthy relationship between the two Writers Guilds was of greater importance than what I hope, in time, will be looked back upon as bookkeeping.

Like most members, I’ve wondered why in this age of easy telecommuniations we still need two separate Writers Guilds anyway, with separate officers and Boards (they call theirs a Council) and, most wastefully, separate executive directors, paid staffs, and headquarters. The resistance to merger has historically come from the East, where heavy concentrations of news and daytime writers, for instance, worry that their unique concerns will go underattended.

I’m thinking about all of this more and more lately as we watch the unfortunate, ongoing contretemps between SAG and AFTRA, similarly redundant and overlapping Guilds. I’d hope that their troubles will provide an impetus for us to look at ourselves and eliminate our own split once and for all.

We showed good faith to the East and then some; now I'd love to see them do the same, and take the lead in setting forth some kind of plan for a merger which would leave them confident that their interests will be protected.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Scott Frank

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to turn over this space on occasion to other writers with important Guild experience, to share their thoughts about where we stand.

First up is Scott Frank. You probably know him as one of the top screenwriters working today, and may also recall that he served on the WGA Board of Directors from 2005-07, elected as part of the original Writers United slate.

Scott has some strong opinions about our approach the last few years, and what we need to do to be more effective at the negotiating table going forward.

Here’s Scott:

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The economics of our business are changing rapidly. But make no mistake: it is a BUSINESS. Going forward, we need to approach future negotiations as, well... negotiations. We are grown ups, fighting for a piece of an economic pie that is evolving as we go. We can only guess at trends. Every month, some new hotspot appears in the world of New Media. If we are to truly secure our place in that world, we have to start thinking creatively. Agitating will not win writers respect. Negotiating will.

Our leadership for years has claimed that the guild had gotten too "cozy" with the CEO's. That we needed to fight them from the outside. Yet, in the end, the only way we were able to make a deal was to sit down in the same room with these same CEOs.

Unity is a great thing, but the fight is not an emotional one, it's an economic one. We need to approach our future with a pragmatic eye. The world is changing. The economy is changing.

Are the corporations "greedy?" Sure. That's what corporations are. They are not people. They are money-making entities responsible for making as much money as possible for their shareholders. Does this make them evil? I don't think so. We just need to show them that it's in their best FINANCIAL interest to make us their partners going forward. They are as scared as we are about the future. That only makes them tougher to deal with.

Standing outside their offices and making fun of them won't get us a better contract. Working with them and ALL of the other guilds to better understand the future will. Working with them and ALL of the other guilds to set a better table for the next negotiation certainly will.

Howard Michael Gould understands all that. He cares about our future, knows that we'll have to fight for it, but understands that our fight, like our business, is collaborative.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The DGA: Where to Start

I think most of our members have no idea how bad the relationship is right now between the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild. Resentment and mistrust run high in both directions, and I’m sure that leaders on each side could be compelling in articulating the reasons.

But the truth is, we need them, and they need us. Come 2011, we don’t want to look on helplessly, again, as they negotiate the contract which becomes the pattern for our own. And they don’t want to look on helplessly, again, as we wage a strike which puts their members out of work.

To be sure, there was a meaningful difference of opinion in 2007 which perhaps made the breach inevitable. They looked at New Media and saw an area which wasn’t generating much revenue yet, and was thus unnecessary to address in this year’s negotiation. We looked at New Media and saw the same thing, but considered that exactly the reason to address it now: better to fight today for theoretical dollars than to wait until the dollars are real and abundant and that much harder to wrest from management. We forced the issue; they closed the deal.

In a perfect world, we’ll work together some day, and even at times quietly collaborate to pose as good cop and bad cop.

Things are so broken now that it’s hard to imagine getting to that point from here. But it’s not hard to imagine how we might begin.

Opportunity lies in the fact that New Media is no longer just a big theoretical. They have a deal in place, as do we, and the deals are virtually identical. The questions now are not about policy, but about tracking and enforcement. How are the studios using New Media to generate revenues? How are consumers using it to view our product? How well are our contracts covering these trends as New Media moves from theoretical to practical? Are there gaps which leave us treated unfairly? What unforseen aspects will need to be addressed next?

We have all these issues precisely in common with the DGA, and will with SAG too. So let’s put together a tri-Guild committee, comprised of, say, two staffers and three members from each Guild, to meet on a regular basis to pool information and resources toward tracking facts and trends of mutual concern.

If we do this, will we still be faced with differences of substance once again down the line, in 2011 or 2014 or beyond? Won’t the day come when we still want more than the DGA is inclined to demand? Undoubtedly. Residuals play a more crucial role in the incomes of a greater percentage of our members. Plus labor-management confrontation is simply more part of our DNA. But hopefully by then we’ll again have a relationship to build upon, and we’ll be able to compromise and fuse into a joint negotiating posture which is a winner for both Guilds, and for SAG, too.

From where we stand right now, that dream may seem as unlikely as a thousand-to-one buzzer-beating shot from halfcourt. Maybe it is.

But we can certainly start with a lay-up, and see where we'll be able to take it from there.