Barry Levinson on WGA Strike ’07: “Genuine Arrogance on the Part of the Corporations”


Barry Levinson, writer-director- producer-industry immortal, drops in on Nikki Finke’s comment section with some words of wisdom:

From: Barry Levinson

It used to make more sense when the writers and all the guilds negotiated with studio and TV people; Paley owned CBS, Sarnoff owned NBC, and you had studio heads like Jack Warner and Zanuck. Now you’ve got writers who are negotiating with giant corporations, and there’s a whole other sensibility. NBC is part of General Electric, and General Electric has enough contempt for its entertainment division even without a strike. Writers are like little gnats to them. So this is a whole other game, a bit like a small little guy against these behemoths. Not anything close to what it used to be in the past. GE looks at all its people and all its assets and asks, If we’re struck for seven months, what does it mean in terms of the bottom line? It’s probably like a minor dent in their portfolio.

The writers want to be able to have some kind of participation in the revenues which are obviously going to come from digital and the Internet. Really, the guilds got screwed many, many years ago and have never been able to overcome that. The original idea was that the first time a show aired, TV writers got their biggest paycheck; then when it aired again you got 50 percent, aired again you got 25 percent, and the amount kept dropping until you got a check for 11 cents. What nobody realized back then is that the I Love Lucys of the world keep playing forever. Whoever sells and purchases I Love Lucy today deals with bigger sums of money than they did in the initial run, but the writers and everyone else involved in actually making that show have long been out of the equation. If back then the writers had demanded they be locked in at a modestly reasonable percentage for the whole life of the show, it would still amount to something in today’s dollars for the people who actually made the show.

The downside to the strike is that the guilds haven’t set themselves up properly, but still have to find a way to stay in the game as participants. And the corporations are not trying to be amenable. CBS is more in the TV business than GE is with NBC, so Les Moonves may be more directly involved with the bottom line for TV and with his talent, what he needs to make his network a monetary success. It’s the same corporate mindset at the studios, except the pressures and effects are less immediate. We’re still dealing with giant companies like Sony.

I think [the strike] is going to be a long, drawn-out process. A place like GE can say let’s get back in a couple of months. But all the networks could look around and say we’re all on strike, we’re all in reruns, therefore we’re spending less on production, even if we’re earning a little less on advertising, so we’re all on equal footing and competitive. It’s difficult negotiating with them because there’s so little real understanding. This is about a mixed culture. When Paley owned CBS, he understood it because he dealt with all his people on a regular basis–his world was radio and TV, and so was Sarnoff at NBC. They were more connected to the thing, now we’ve got a much more distant ownership.

And that’s the difference between Warner and Zanuck and all the people today–today they’re all employees of massive companies like Sony.

Will there be some resolution? Of course. But the networks can afford to go months and months and just regard writers as a nuisance to the corporation. I don’t think the demands are excessive. What we need is for people to sit down and say it’s a situation that’s difficult to understand, we’re dealing with changing technology, circumstances that are fluid and continuing to evolve and difficult to sort out. Let’s address it and find an equation by which writers, directors, actors can movie down that road in some kind of equitable fashion. But what I’m hearing is that there’s a genuine arrogance on the part of the corporations, and we’re about to enter into a really adversarial relationship.

Nobody’s happy about any of this; it’s unfortunate.