Greed v Greed in Hollywood

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, July 11 1988

According to the Hollywood rumour mill, the nine thousand film and television script writers who have been on strike for the last 18 weeks, are about to return to work. They may. They may not. Who cares?

The Writers Guild of America, which called the strike, look like runaway winners of this year’s Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Award for unlovely trade unionists. The only real competition comes from The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who happen to represent the equally unlovely opposition in the current conflict.

The Guild versus the Alliance. It sounds like the kind of script George Lucas would be happy to blow another $40 million on. He’d be wasting his money because this is a struggle not between the forces of Good and Evil but between two groups of rich, pampered and petulant people. This is Greed preying upon itself.

The writers – poor darlings – work on contracts which earn them a minimum of $50,400 for a one-hour slice of television. Some of the writers are flops and part-timers who fail to earn a bean; some work for months on a script which they never manage to sell; but last year, by the best estimate, the Guild’s hard core of 2,500 successful writers shared a cool $300 million between them. Call it an average of $120,000 each. The producers, on the other hand, are even wealthier, or, as Dave Letterman, host of NBC’s Late Night show, put it last week ‘money-grubbing scum’.

“Whose side does one take in such a war?” asked the Washington Post. “That of the writers with their scads of money? Or that of the producers with their tons of money?” There is not even a clear moral issue between them. It is only more greed that divides them.

Nearly half of the writers’ income comes from selling shows to other American and overseas TV stations. The bickering broke out in March when the writers said they wanted a bigger share of the income from foreign sales. The producers went off and counted their money and then came back and not only refused the demand but made a grab for a larger share of the money which the writers earn from peddling re-runs on American TV. The writers threw down their pens, switched off their word processors and drove their Porsches down to the nearest picket line.

Since then, strange things have been happening in Hollywood. The flow of TV and cinema films in production has dried to a meagre trickle, and the whole swarm of Hollywood gadflies who normally feed off this work have been buzzing around in all directions looking for a new feast. And all they have found is each other.

Take the Hollywood agents, for example. The Grande Fromage of 1988 agents is Michael Ovitz, President of the Creative Artists Agency, and the beneficiary of his own personal Hollywood joke – “The Devil goes up to Mike Ovitz and whispers in his ear that he can have any deal in Hollywood, any deal he wants, if he gives up his immortal soul. Ovitz turns to the Devil and says – `Yeah, so what’s the catch?'”

Ovitz wants it all – or, at least, his ten per cent of it all. As Hollywood has dawdled to a halt, Ovitz and the CAA gang have kept themselves busy by raiding other agencies for their clients, seizing Cher, Gene Hackman, Goldie Hawn, Jessica Lange, Whoopie Goldberg and Robin Williams among their booty.

The other agencies – with no real work to distract them – have been fighting back, trying to seduce not only Ovitz’ clients but also his staff. Ovitz, in turn, is said to have hired surveillance teams to keep a 24-hour watch on clients who might be vulnerable. He is also credited with putting in the fix with the maitre d’ at the Palm, a favourite Hollywood drinking hole, to ensure that no rival agent gets a table within earshot of any of his people.

One of the few Hollywood figures who has dared openly to challenge Ovitz is the British film producer, David Puttnam, who spent much of his brief and tempestuous career at Columbia Pictures last year trying to fight the influence of the sticky-fingered power-mongers who run the town. Although Puttnam left Columbia last September, he, too, has been caught in the tide of bitching which has swept through the industry as the strike has removed most of its usual distractions.

Puttnam’s complaint was that Hollywood was ruled by ‘the tyranny of the box office’ which reduced its products to ‘the lowest common denominator of public taste’. In search of cinema quality, he clashed with powerful commercial directors like Norman Jewison (Moonstruck), actors like Bill Murray (Ghostbusters) and producers like Ray Stark (Funny Girl) but was eventually squeezed out by their collective influence. Last month – a clear nine months after Puttnam’s departure – Hollywood’s trade mag, Variety, suddenly dug up the corpse of the old controversy and filled its strike-ridden pages with an extraordinary series which it trumpeted under the title “Hollywood Responds to David Puttnam”.

Twelve of Hollywood’s hardest heavies lined up in the magazine’s pages to put the boot into Puttnam. A sample swipe from Ray Stark – “Puttnam should have kept his mind open and his mouth shut”. There were swipes too from the magazine itself which complained that Puttnam had spent $432 million on films which had so far earned only $45 million; they omitted to mention that 33 of the films in question had yet to be released. But it was all good Hollywood entertainment, and much better than working.

The inertia of the strike seemed to spread its madness even among the richest and most powerful of all – the moguls who own the big production companies. Like Kirk Kerkorian (estimated personal value $950 million) who controls MGM/United Artists and who trades film companies the way schoolboys swap stamps. Since 1969 Kerkorian has bought, sold and then bought back both MGM and United Artists, turning a nice little profit on each transaction. Half way through the strike, he suddenly decided to put the whole lot back on the market.

Industry analysts turned up their noses and sneered. As a result of Kerkorian’s various transactions, the company has lost many of the rights to market its own films as home videos, now a key source of profit in the film industry. Without those rights, and with George Lucas’ latest effort, Willow, bleeding Kerkorian’s money all over the set, the For Sale sign attracted little interest. But it was better than doing nothing.

But the most curious effect of the strike has been in American living rooms, ninety eight per cent of which contain television sets. As the strike has dried up the scripts, US television output has started to be consumed by re-runs.

Johnny Carson, whose sense of humour is constructed by teams of writers, was replaced by old re-runs with tired once-topical jokes about Jimmy Carter, until his company managed to make its own private deal with the Writers Guild and bring Carson back to life. But drama and current affairs slots, which are stuck with the strike, have started recycling material which has already been across the screen two or three times before.

The networks are banking on the election, the Olympics and the baseball World Series to keep their viewers happy, but American TV analysts believe the networks are coming to a fork in the road. Down one side, the hard-core TV addicts will stay stuck in front of their boxes eternally reliving the joys of Bonanza and the wildlife wonders of Daktari, and hopelessly hooked on the most potent form of re-run – the video casette. While down the other side, millions of viewers whose brains are still functioning will desert their sets and simply not return.

If the strike does open up this split, it will only be accelerating a trend which has already started to develop. A considerable proportion of American TV viewers are already addicted to re-runs, to the point where CBS’ best ideas for new entertainment slots for next season are said to be revived versions of shows starring Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. On the other side, the networks are being warned that they have already started to lose viewers, whose average time in front of the box has fallen to 30 hours 20 minutes a week.

So, who cares whether the writers come back? As usual, perhaps the only people who are being hurt by all this are the ones who can least afford it – the low-paid support staff who oil the Hollywood machine. The make-up artists have no-one to make up. The scenery makers and shifters can neither make nor shift. The gaffers can’t gaff. The studio secretaries, the costume makers, the script typers, the grips and the messengers are all idle, not to mention the restaurant waiters and deli workers, the caterers and cleaners, taxi drivers and doormen who are all waiting for business to return to normal.

The one group whose work has continued almost without interruption, of course, is the writers. Because the truth is that they are all slaving away at home over hot word-processors just as busily as ever and, when the strike is over, it will be boom time again in Hollywood.