Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lost's Writing on the Wall?


Last Friday, there was news from Hollywood that should have Lost fans concerned. The membership of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) authorized a strike. The mandate to authorize was strong, with 90.3% of votes, and over 5,500 of 12,000 members (of this normally low-turnout union) voting.

So why is this happening now, and what does it have to do with Lost?

It turns out that all the folks who make the TV and film you watch possible, including writers, directors, and actors, are represented by unions, who have contracts with the producers, specifically the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The WGA contract expires on Halloween-- hence the current possibility of a strike as a new contract is negotiated. If you were around during the last WGA strike in 1988, you know how bad TV and film can get during these strikes.

But strike authorization is sort of a bargaining tool in itself: it gives union leadership a trigger to pull, and the negotiators for the other side (AMPTP) know it. However it does not mean a strike is inevitable.

Gregg Nations, Lost's script coordinator had this to say about what this strike authorization means in his post at the official Fuselage forums:

"What the 90% strike authorization does is hopefully scared the producers into realizing that the writers mean business. There is no fooling around. There's going to be harsh, pointed criticism from each side, bad feelings are going to come out of it like crazy, and then maybe there doesn't have to be a strike. It's not set in stone that writers walk out on Nov. 1 -- but if things don't look good to the negotiating committee, then they can call for a strike any time after that.

"With such a high voter turnout and a high percentage voting yes, maybe this means nothing will happen. If the vote had only been say 50% yes, then the producers would've walked all over the writers. As it is now, that ain't gonna happen. But it is all about money, and the big companies don't like parting with it, so it's still going to be a battle."

It gets hairier though. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contracts also expire soon, in April-June 2008. The WGA may decide to continue working until then, when potentially all three unions could strike simultaneously for combined leverage, essentially bringing the Hollywood machine to a standstill: no writers, directors, or actors.

But besides June is so far away that Lost Season 4 is safe right?

We don't know. Potentially the writers could strike as soon as their contract expires, the day after Halloween.

Given that Lost has been filming Season 4 since late August, that means that by November 1, the film crew would have finished about six or seven episodes, and the writers might be done with about three more. (According to Jorge Garcia's post here, they are currently filming 4.06). That makes a ballpark figure of ten episodes of the scheduled sixteen before Lost must halt filming, if filming continues without WGA workers, and 6 or 7 if not. Lost's stellar stable of writers includes stalwarts such as Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis, and Elizabeth Sarnoff, and prominent newcomers such as Brian K. Vaughan. You have to remember that quite a few of the writing assistants on Lost, and script editors (such as Gregg Nations or Patti Dalzell) are also part of the WGA, and much of this work is performed during actual filming. And Lost's showrunners Damon & Carlton-- they are WGA members and would be required to strike too. For those of you hoping the Lost writing team was being forced into this, think again. That's not how the film industry works.

Again, Gregg Nations explains in another post at the Fuselage:

"If there is a strike, we will shut down immediately. Carlton is on the negotiating committee for the WGA, and there is no way that any of the writers would cross a picket line. We will not bank episodes or scripts. Depending on how many episodes are completed before a strike were to happen, it would be up to ABC to decide how to air them.

"Personally, I think the WGA is in a very good bargaining position, and if there is a strike, it's the producers and studios who are being the uncompromising ones. This could be a contentious round of discussions and you never know how things will work out. Hopefully it'll all go smoothly and it won't be an issue."

Scripts are simply "not in the can" through to the end of the season, even if the overall storyline is already mapped out. There are WGA-related jobs that are required even during filming. Filming of Season 4 simply cannot continue without the writers, and if you believe otherwise, you are gravely misinformed.

Also, notice that Gregg Nations mentioned that Carlton is actually on the negotiating committee for the WGA. What does that mean for the average Lost fan? Two things. First, Carlton is in fact central to the leadership machinery of the union that could initiate a strike. Second, Carlton may be required to stay in Los Angeles to deal with negotiations, tethering him from making his frequent trips to Hawaii as the "on-the-ground" showrunner for Lost. This work may dilute any hopes that while Carlton and Damon would have to halt all work covered by the WGA, they could in theory continue as executive producers of the show.

Assuming the worst case, Lost might halt production at about ten episodes, or even less if production halts immediately. Then ABC is presented with an unenviable choice: Do they broadcast those ten? This would mean reneging on their promise to eliminate a mid-season hiatus, and in their minds would risk the entire Lost franchise because of low ratings after the hiatus, as had occurred in Season 3. But the network will be desperate to show anything to keep the company running. This also means a random cliffhanger, because the mid-season storyline arc won't account for a strike-based hiatus. Or instead, they can find enough "replacement fare" to cover themselves until the strike is resolved, then broadcast Season 4 all sixteen episodes in a row. Replacement fare? I'm talking R&R: Reruns and Reality shows, because the latter doesn't require writers, or even actors for that matter. For the record, in that case I'm hoping ABC takes the pre-canned Daybreak off the archive shelf, a series that improved greatly after the clumsy and draining pilot episode, and could deserve another chance.

As mentioned above, SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and DGA (Directors Guild of America) are also set to strike. Their contracts expire in summer 2008 they have the potential to be a killer to the TV industry, especially if WGA waits until then to strike for a devastating triple-strike. In that case, Season 4 will be safe, finished broadcasting, and re-run fodder for us fans. But what a triple strike would likely be aiming at is the networks' jugular of the Fall 2008 sweeps period, meaning Lost Season 5 won't start filming until perhaps 2009, pushing Lost's end date back one year to 2011.

Gregg Nation comments:

"I'm really not sure how ABC would handle episodes completed and 'in the can.' They may wait to see how long a strike would last. Or they could decide to burn them off and then have another mini-hiatus until after the strike is over and production is back in the swing of things. ABC will be facing that issue with all their shows if a strike happens."

Now these are the gloom and doom cases of the effects of various strikes on Lost. There are reasons to think the worst case isn't coming.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the DGA usually negotiates its contracts many months before the previous one expires. Their contract expires in June 2008, but they may even begin negotiations this November, and may even work something out. Then the WGA may hesitate to force a strike when the DGA is sitting happy with a new contract.

Some more background. First off, what are the unions striking for? Money of course, a type called "residuals", which means payment (in addition to the salary for the original work) for each rebroadcast of the material, including cable, foreign, DVDs, as well as digital streaming and downloads.

The studios don't want to pay residuals to writers until they have recouped their overhead costs, and additionally don't want to pay the apparently large jump in figures requested for DVD sale residuals. If the producers don't budge, then the best bet for the unions is the crippling leverage of a triple strike in June 2008, which would mean, at least, Season 4 would be safe. Now you may be thinking this is a selfish act by the writers, they just want more money, right? Wrong. An example that is easy to think about and understand is that when you walk into a store and buy a book, the author gets 15% or something around that. When you buy a DVD, the writers only get about $0.04 off each DVD sale. Seem fair to you? They aren't stealing money from you the viewer. New technology is changing the way the media industry makes money. The writers are asking for their fair share from the uber-rich media conglomerates; in the case of Lost, this means Disney, and we all know how unfathomly rich they already are. I'm on Carlton's side here.

Confusion often arises when we mention that producers are fighting the writers in this labor dispute. "But wait", you say "Carlton and Damon are both producers and writers." Yes, but no. I'll give you another quote by Gregg Nations that helps clarify this:

"As far as Carlton and Damon being writers and producers and caught in the middle, it doesn't really happen like that. This is where the term "producer" becomes problematic because of the way it's defined. Creatively, Damon and Carlton call the shots; therefore they are the (creative) executive producers. However, it is Touchstone (now called ABC Studios) who pays for the show and is therefore the producing entity. (And ABC Studios is in turn owned by Walt Disney Corporation, which in the end is really the paying/producing entity.) So the big corporations, like Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, CBS, Fox, NBC Universal, etc., are the 'producers' the writers guild is negotiating with. It kind of comes down to the suits versus the creative people.

"There is a producer's guild, and I'm not sure what the membership requirements are to join. Maybe someone like J. J. Abrams could join since technically he owns his own company and produces various shows. I don't know if it's a requirement to join the producer's guild and be a signatory to the various other guilds in order to employ WGA, DGA and SAG members. I know as a member of the WGA, you are not allowed to work for companies that are not signatories to the minimum basic agreement. And that's the agreement the WGA and the producer's guild is trying to hammer out now.

"So we'll see. SAG's contract is up at the end of April, which is why film production is starting to be affected. If a film can't start and finish by the end of April, companies are passing on it. Everything is being moved up because of that. So if the writers strike, I would imagine that the actors would strike, too. And that would be bad, too..."

Well, let's all cross our fingers and see what happens. Give me a beard and call me Jacko, and flash me forward to a future with no strikes and plenty of Lost on tap.

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