Tuned In

Strike Watch: The Beginning of the End?

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Yesterday, the directors’ guild and the AMPTP announced they had reached a contract agreement, which, if it’s accepted as the template for negotiating a writers’ deal, is our best shot at ending the strike in weeks rather than months.

I’m not a lawyer or a contract negotiator, so I won’t pretend to say whether it would equal a good deal for the writers. We do know that the directors managed to get and/or increase payments on Internet sales and downloads, to levels less than the writers had asked for but more than the chintzy deal the producers had last offered the writers before walking out on negotiations.

Whatever. Those are money details, and they matter, and presumably the WGA’s pros have them under the microscope at this moment. (What’s best for directors is not always best for writers, so they can and should negotiate key items differently.) They are not, however, what will ultimately determine whether the strike gets settled soon. The real key is whether the writers and studios decide to act like businesspeople.

The rhetoric on both sides of the strike has gotten needlessly nasty and personal in the past three months. The studios seem to be affronted that the writers had the temerity to go on strike; the writers are angry about feeling disrespected and treated like chattel. It’s time to let that go and focus on getting to that cold midpoint between What I Want and What That Guy Wants. Everything else–pride, anger, respect, even fairness–is noise.

This morning, I’m decently optimistic that will happen. Part of this is practical: the producers are looking at the possibility of a strike, come summer, of the actors as well if a deal doesn’t get done; the writers are looking at the real possibility of high-profile defections in their ranks if they don’t cut the best deal they can now.

A deal could still be scuttled: if, for instance, the studios and networks continue to delude themselves that they can ride out a long strike indefinitely with Mystical Reality Powder and Magical New Business Models without suffering any longterm damage when their audiences break their entertainment habits. Or if the writers’ vote is dominated by members who view the directors as half-management and think there are yet bigger gains to be won from a yet-longer strike. (A potential source of conflict in the union is that some of the biggest hardliners are WGA members who did not actually have jobs to begin with. As I’ve heard one writer put it, “A strike is a promotion for them.”)

This morning, though, there are positive signs. The AMPTP has offered to return to the table for informal talks with the writers, of the sort that smoothed the way for the relatively quick DGA settlement. And at strikers’ blog United Hollywood, a post last night concluded: “Let’s discuss it, let’s debate it, but let’s keep it civil and understand that the deal that gets everyone back to work will be the one that no one loves, but everyone can live with.”

Sounds like people ready to do business.