November 15, 2007
Life on the picket lines—a striking writer reports
When I was asked by The Jewish Journal whether I'd like to write something funny about the WGA strike, I thought -- hey, there's nothing funny about this:
corporate bullies refusing to pay writers for their work. This is serious.
But as my friend Rob Lotterstein, creator and executive producer of Fox's "The War at Home" says, "Just because we're not writing doesn't mean we've lost our sense of humor."
I see Rob at Friday's rally in Fox Plaza, and he says: "This is like Yom Kippur for writers. We run into many of the people we would prefer not to see; I thought we hated each other but on a day like today ... all is forgiven. We smile a too-broad smile, ask how they're doing and wish them well."
I can't help but notice that we're standing next to a table piled high with bagel halves spread with cream cheese schmears. It's no secret that the Writer's Guild has a greater-than-the-general-population proportion of Jews in its membership. Did the grocery store workers or the janitors union have bagels when they went out on strike?
I bet they had doughnuts. We have doughnuts, too -- Krispy Kreme -- and gourmet churros -- but they're being passed out by assistants, not rank and file. We know they're assistants because they're wearing baseball caps with agency names embroidered on them. They're here to lend support, sent by the people who really stand to lose money in this strike: the agents. The cute 20-somethings from United Talent Agency proffer jumbo-size plastic trash bags filled with Power Bars. On the picket line two days ago at Sony, I watched a frail young man balance a cardboard tray of Starbucks cups offering, in a distinctive lilt: "Mocha? Anyone want a mocha? I've got one mocha left." This is Hollywood; the privileges don't die easy.
We have welcome support from SAG (Screen Actor's Guild). The actors' contracts come up in June, and they will have the same issue on the table: payment for work sold to new media. We know who they are, because they look so much better than we do. Writers tend to be dough-y and out of shape -- all that compulsive eating to stem the anxiety of the blank page -- we generally wear ill-fitting, faded T-shirts and "relaxed fit" jeans. Actors have to maintain a better body image. It's their job. They work out and dress in clothes that show off their toned muscles. Anyway, we're glad they're here. More bodies -- especially beautiful ones -- on the line are a good thing.
The actors also draw the media. Here in Fox Plaza there are 4,000 writers, and yet all the cameras are trained on the two actors from "Reno 911" who've shown up in their sheriff's costumes. Have you watched the show? They wear official-looking shirts and hats, but micro-mini shorts -- at least the guys do. Well, I have to say, he does have great legs and an adorable butt. I can only imagine that casting call. Then there's a gorgeous young actress, dressed in a diaphanous black cocktail dress appropriate only for an awards show. She's floating through the crowd carrying a large sign, trimmed in ostrich feathers, that reads "DAY 5."
The rally does what it's supposed to: Make a lot of noise, buoy spirits, solidify determination and get us more coverage in the press and on the Web. Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine sing us a couple of "fight songs" -- OK, not exactly Pete Seeger singing to coal miners, but I take a picture with my cell phone and call my daughter Molly at college to tell her. She gets off to call her boyfriend because apparently he's a major R.A.T.M. fan. Later that night she sends me an e-mail of support telling me the O Bar in West Hollywood is offering Strike Specials. Solidarity!
The R.A.T.M. guys finish and Jesse Jackson speaks. I call my son, whose name is also Jesse, to tell him. "What's Jesse Jackson doing there?" my Jesse asks, with his natural-born instinct to cut to the chase. The only answer I come up with is, "It's win/win. Everybody gets a picture in the paper."
Then the speeches from our leadership -- our Executive Director David Young recalls how the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has made the identical disingenuous claims, over and over, every time there is a new development in entertainment: videocassettes, DVDs, cable and reality TV. They whine, "We don't have a business model yet.... We aren't making any money." The crowd spontaneously erupts in a chant of, "Bulls--t! Bulls--t!"
Our chief negotiator, John Bowman shouts, "Come back to the table, baby! We can work it out."
Seth McFarlane (creator, executive producer of "Family Guy" and the voice of Stewie) speaks with humor but decided strength when he tells us that on the third day of the strike all "Family Guy" assistants were fired by Fox. "Instead of negotiating, they lashed out at the little guy. What a classy move."
Then he urges all show runners (executive producers like himself) to personally continue to pay their assistants while we're out on strike. A truly classy move.
The best speaker is, no surprise, an actor! Alan Rosenberg, president of SAG (and Jewish, if you're keeping score) pulls in cheers with lines like: "They worry about profit margins and we worry about paying our bills!"
I wonder, is the White House in his future? Or at least the California governor's mansion? You may remember, Ronald Reagan started out as president of SAG. Of course, Reagan sold out the actors on residuals, while Rosenberg is fighting for them. A nice Jewish boy. Last, we hear from the much-venerated Norman Lear who buttons up the speeches with a laugh when he says, "I was here when we struck against the Pharaoh." So I guess there is a Jewish influence on this strike line.
That's my personal report from the ground. If you'd like a simple explanation of the real issues this strike is about, I recommend this YouTube video:
Oren Kaplan, the director of 'Miram and Shoshana' and writer (and Journal contributor) Seth Menachem are the brains and brains behind this new video 'WGA Strike Gets Violent'. They add this note: Studios: Please do what's fair before things get too bloody on the streets of Los Angeles.