Secret Agent Men
How the tenpercenters formed a road map to peace during the strike’s dark days
Tuesday, November 20, 2007 - 5:00 pm
BY NOW YOU PROBABLY KNOW about the survey by Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business Management in which two out of three Americans say they back the Writers Guild of America in its dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who said the findings weren’t surprising “when the only real information the public is getting is from sound bites and the issues are as complex as these.” A WGA board member had a different take on what the survey says, arguing that the problem for the producers wasn’t complexity, but credulity. “Four times as many Americans believe in UFOs as believe AMPTP president Nick Counter,” he joked to me.
Such was the poisonous film noir atmosphere permeating the first two weeks of the WGA strike that was starting to shut down Hollywood. So, it was like the feel-good plot of Disney’s Enchanted when, suddenly, on the night of November 16, I picked up rumors that the two sides had agreed to head back to the bargaining table. Within hours, back-to-back identical bulletins were issued first by the WGA and then by AMPTP: “Leaders from the WGA and the AMPTP have mutually agreed to resume formal negotiations on November 26. No other details or press statements will be issued.”
So how did this much-hoped-for but unexpected turn of events happen? First, Counter earlier that week quietly dropped a demand that his side wouldn’t go back into negotiations until the writers strike was stopped or at least suspended.
Then the WGA’s president, Patric Verrone, visited Washington, D.C., and, joined by his SAG counterpart, Alan Rosenberg, met with members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation, lawmakers on committees overseeing the television industry as well as three FCC members. Though Verrone isn’t asking for hearings into strike-related issues, rumors keep reaching me about possible Senate or House hearings into the business practices of the Big Media conglomerates that own most of the major Hollywood studios and networks. Certainly Verrone has expressed opposition to any further consolidation in the media industry, an issue that is heating up in Congress. And he and Rosenberg were kvetching around Congress that Big Media is helping muzzle striking writers seeking news coverage of their side of the story.
But the real heavy lifting took place during a secret meeting at Creative Artists Agency partner Bryan Lourd’s home. Attending were Verrone and chief WGA negotiator Dave Young along with Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger and (Fox) News Corp.’s No. 2 Peter Chernin, among others. Lourd refuses to comment on what went on, but he deserves tremendous credit for getting both sides talking again. No one should be naive enough to think that either side would go back into talks if it didn’t suit their current agendas. But certainly anyone who knows Lourd, one of the most successful Hollywood agents ever, is well aware that the honey-tongued CAA Southerner can talk anybody into anything, even his rivals.
The secret confab was the culmination of days of back-channel efforts by two agents. (I broke the news on my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com.) As I reported then, a partner in a major tenpercentery was having “much conversation” with WGA negotiating committee topper Dave Young. I can tell you now this was Lourd. At the same time, United Talent Agency’s Jim Berkus was talking to AMPTP president Counter. Berkus had made the first phone call to set up a November 8 meeting at the WGA’s Fairfax headquarters between the WGA and key partners in Hollywood’s five major agencies. “The first call went from Jim Berkus to [William Morris’] Jim Wiatt to [Endeavor’s] Rick Rosen to [CAA’s] Bryan Lourd to [ICM’s] Chris Silbermann,” a source says. With negotiations at a standstill, the agency partners offered to do anything possible as a “collective resource.”
While Lourd met with Young, and Berkus with Counter, the other agents fanned out to speak to individual moguls as well. Then all the tenpercenters agreed to have Lourd take over the diplomacy “because he had the best relationship [with Young] and the biggest bat [CAA’s dominance representing talent],” an insider told me.
It took two weeks of schmoozing (even if Bryan is a goy), but the meeting at Lourd’s home finally happened. The agent also has been helping both sides “refine” the issues at hand.
When I wrote on my Web site that Hollywood should “Bring on the Agents,” it was because I had confidence they could help provide the basis for progress toward a settlement. Meanwhile the strike keeps taking its toll. IATSE told me that the number of TV shows that have shut down because of the writers walkout was 50 at the beginning of last week. And, by the end, that number was more than 100.
EVEN THE MOVIE STUDIOS are starting to feel pain. United Artists announced last Friday night that the studio has postponed production on Oliver Stone’s Pinkville, about the 1968 My Lai massacre, because of the writers strike. Both Stone and scribe Mikko Alanne are WGA members and couldn’t make the revisions on a script. “UA didn’t want them to cross the line and neither did they,” an insider explained.
Also, the cast and crew had been hired and a start date in Thailand set for December 10 for what was going to be a three-month shoot. Some of the crew members were already there and then, suddenly, the Thai government was being notified, sets were struck, hotels reservations canceled, etc. Talk about money out the window for a fledgling studio that’s part of a troubled major (MGM).
Some films are in retreat because of the strike. But Hollywood studios, which already have a full slate for 2008, aren’t even close to a crisis. Still, the studios have been boasting how they planned for this writers strike. Well, no one can plan for everything.
For instance, Angels & Demons, the next in best-selling novelist Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code franchise for Sony, was the pic for which Akiva Goldsman bagged $4 million — a new high for a screenwriter scribbling an adaptation of a book. Yet, from what I hear, star Tom Hanks isn’t happy with the script he’s been presented, and the start of filming has been pushed back right now from March to a release date of May 15, 2009 at the earliest.