During the last Writers Guild strike which began in November, 2007, I remember participating in an online writers board for WGA members and getting into a debate with a very famous writer, one of the guys who had written Pirates of the Caribbean -- I think that it was Ted Elliott, who either had or was about to run for Guild president, I don't recall which at this point -- who was chastising me for an article I'd written about why I thought the strike would end in February. By the way, the strike ended in February.
I wrote a long, weekly series of "Primers" for the Huffington Post during the strike, 26 of them in all. Several are memorable to me. The most notable was the piece "Understanding Misunderstanding" in which I explained what the AMPTP was misunderstanding about the Writers Guild and therefore thinking members would fold anytime soon. I had more Guild members come up to me on the picket lines after that one article than any others (and I had a lot during the strike).
Two other article exchanges stand out because they were confrontational. One got me into an online Huffington debate of sorts with the actor Alec Baldwin, who in his own Huffington Post blog was criticizing WGA leadership from a perspective that was woefully misguided, often (wrongly) comparing it to how the Directors Guild so-wonderfully managed negotiations while avoiding strikes. (In reality, the way the directors "managed" negotiatons was usually, "Let's not ever strike, which management knows we won't do, so they can always low-ball us, but then reap the benefits of whatever the WGA gets after it strikes." At one point, Mr. Baldwin singled me out by name, how my "quips" were killing him, in his piece here.
What had brought that about is I wrote a long reply "Primer" in the middle of our exchange that was an appreciation to actor, since writers and actor were natural enemies on a movie set, but that it was impressive how strongly supportive actors had been during the current WGA strike. In explaining the historic conflict between writers and actors, I told a story about unnamed actors who infamously had publicly slammed the legendary Neil Simon on the set of the movie, "The Marrying Man" by shouting out loudly so that everyone could get every word, "Doesn't anyone here know how to write comedy??!!!" Simon took such offense that he stopped coming to the set after that or even doing rewrites, and the film ultimately flopped. What I intentionally left out in my article was that the actors in question were Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger who he later married. I left it out from politeness, not wanting to publicly ridicule him, but also -- since I knew he was well-aware who I was referring to -- so that he would know I understood exactly who he was. To my surprise in his response, he outed himself. (I guess, give an actor a chance to talk about himself, even if it makes him look arrogant and whiney, and he will...) I decided not to keep debating, since I'd made my point and also -- remembering my friend Nell Minow's wise admonition that situations occur where you realize "Someone has to be the adult in the room, and that it is you," and I knew it would have to be me. (What was amusing was reading all the comments to Mr. Baldwin's blog and my articles that came from his adoring, fawning fans. I wanted to write them back, "You do realize that as much as you suck up to him, he's not inviting you to his house for dinner.")
I do recall one of his chides against me. It was that apparently I thought writers were gods and couldn't dare be criticized, even the Great Neil Simon. It took a great deal of self-control for me not to answer -- since as I said I chose not to keep debating him there -- but I was chomping at the bit. What my clenched fingers so dearly wanted to type in return was, "This has absolutely nothing to do with not criticizing writers. Writers can be criticized all the time, as can actors. The point is not that Neil Simon couldn't ever be criticized...he can be, and has done so himself...but rather how insanely stupid it was to shout out in public to an entire movie set that Neil Simon -- the most successful playwright in the history of Broadway, author of 'The Odd Couple,' 'Barefoot in the Park,' 'Plaza Suite,' 'Prisoner of Second Avenue,' 'The Goodbye Girl,' and much, much more, including and especially later on with the 'Brighton Beach' trilogy and 'Lost in Yonkers' that won him a Pulitzer Prize -- didn't know how to write comedy!! That's what was so stupid, childish and offending, and why it made national news. But beyond even that, if the movie script was so terrible to begin with from someone who seemingly didn't know how to write comedy...why on earth did you and his co-star agree to be in the movie in the first place??"
But I didn't write that. Well, okay, until here.
The other memorable exchange was a series of articles back-and-forth with a WGA member named John Ridley. He had a fairly high profile at the time, which has become even more so after writing the film, 12 Years a Slave" and creating a TV series and other films. Back then, he was appearing as a period guest on NPR and also (I believe) as a semi-regular on ABC's "Good Morning, America." So his words held weight with a national audience. Unfortunately, his words were more often than not idiotic. Not just in interpretation, but factually wrong. But as galling as all this was, it didn't come close to touching how reprehensible he was when he went "Financial Core" during the strike.
"Financial Core" is looked on with great scorn by Writers Guild members. It allows someone to quit the WGA, yet retain all the benefits of Guild membership. But as much as it's anathema to those in the Guild at any time, it's an explosively deplorable, selfish, mean-spirited act during a strike. It's an "I want to get mine, screw you" action, where a writer can go off and sign a contract during a strike. And it goes beyond the level of scabbing, because that's usually done by someone on the outside. This was someone who is a fellow-member, who will benefit from the sacrifice his compatriots are going through in the strike, some losing their homes, while he dances off to sign contracts and make money.
Yet Mr. Ridley was always seen in his public appearances as a supposedly-thoughtful Guild voice, when he was anything but. He was, in fact, often utterly imbecilic. Okay, I know that sound hyperbolic, but here's just one example that I remember, because it really stood out. I and others had challenged him about what he would suggest was a better tactic than the one he was regularly slamming Guild leadership for. He came up with his bone-headed suggestion -- he wrote that the Guild should show how much it didn't need the AMPTP (who the Guild was striking against) by pooling its own resources and making a blockbuster movie that would become a huge hit.
Without even knowing anything about the Writers Guild or film industry, I'm guessing that most people reading this can see immediately how numbingly foolish this "idea" is. At its most basic level, there's no guarantee that such a movie would even break even, let alone be a blockbuster, and could even be a disastrous flop having nothing to do with whether the movie was good or not, and so you could therefore risk bankrupting the Writers Guild and ending its existence. Further, blockbusters cost over $100 million to make -- the WGA didn't have anything remotely close to that in its bank account. Whatever they had, they could probably only finance something at the level of what's known as a small "indie." Then there's the question of distribution, blanketing the film across the country on a national scale, which a blockbuster needs and studios are specifically set up to do, but not many others, including the Writers Guild. But far above that is the critical, indeed #1 concept of deciding what script you would actually use. There are 12,000 WGA members -- each of whom has what they believe is the world's most brilliant script that the Guild show use. How on earth was the Writers Guild supposed to decide on ONE??! But the thing is, none of that is even the worst, most stupid problem in the wise, thoughtful John Ridley's suggestion. It's that IT WOULD BE ILLEGAL. There are actual laws that forbid a union from using its money to pay a member for work. (Otherwise, the doors would be wide open for massive corruption.) I've written freelance articles for the WGA in-house magazine, and was not allowed to be paid for them. Imagine someone writing a Guild check to a member for writing a major motion picture screenplay!!! It was an appallingly bad, naive and ignorant suggestion from John Ridley, the wise and thoughtful fellow, national analyst, and yet when challenged it was the best thing he could come up with after criticizing Guild leadership for their battle plans. Before he then went Financial Core during the strike.
As you can see, even after all these years, the fellow still galls me. You can read a final article I wrote about him during the strike here, which goes into even more detail, specifics from the time.
And no, I have still not yet found it in me to see "12 Years a Slave," or the TV show he created, or any of his movies, including one that is being promoted now as we speak.
So, that's a bit about the Writers Guild and striking. And you have a reading list of links on top of it. Whether a strike will take place this time around, I have no idea. From all I've read and discussed with people, it seems like it will, though that's separate from how long or short it might be. I hope there isn't one, and matters are settled to everyone's satisfaction. I'll only add an agreement with Mark Evanier's post linked above that a strike is not something most Guild members ever want, but are sometime pushed into a corner by the studios and networks. (To anyone who doubts this, imagine if your company offered you and your fellow-employees a new contract, and it cut your salary by 30%, offered no money for overtime work, eliminated inflation protections, got rid of several of your important health benefits, and trimmed your pension. Would you sign the contract? Take it or leave it. Or strike?) And also, as Mark notes -- contrary to many people's wrong impression -- many issues at stake for writers are not about money.