Paul Haggis: The Reality of Reality and Animation

United Hollywood
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

This post was written by the writer-director Paul Haggis. Paul is the first person to write two back-to-back winners of the Oscar for best picture (Crash and Million Dollar Baby).

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of talking to Patric and some of our negotiating team. Here is what I walked away with. On Friday, before their walkout (or is it lockout?), the AMPTP demanded we take six issues off the table or they wouldn't ever talk to us again. Two of those issues, our demands to cover animation and reality writers, have stirred up some controversy. The AMPTP is sending out its professional spin-minions, calling agents and lawyers and managers, painting us as labor radicals.

Now there are guys like me for whom the label might fit - not that I am a great and good friend of the downtrodden, but I have been fairly accused of being less than moderate and measured at times. I know radical behavior when I see it, and our team's proposals and tactics have been so moderate and reasonable that one could easily believe they were hoping to be recruited by the Canadian diplomatic corps.

The problem is that the other side's spin is working and some writers are actually buying it. Some writers are saying we ought to take these two issues, animation and reality, off the table.

Now, the last time we were told to take something off in order to make progress, we did and absolutely nothing happened. We took off DVDs - which was a very, very painful give - and we got nothing for it. So we should trust these people now?

But let's say we did trust them. Let's say we didn't mind being bullied. Well, there's one thing you should know because we know it for sure: Their ultimatum wasn't about reality and animation. It was an insincere attempt to get us to give away the whole negotiation. They knew our negotiating team couldn't accept it, and here's why.

First of all, they insisted that we take all six issues off the table. Not one or two… all six. And the sixth issue on their list wasn't even a demand. Rather, it was a concept embedded deep within our most important demand (you know the one: coverage for the Internet). They insisted we remove from the table any reference to “distributor's gross” instead of “producer's gross.”

We all know this was a vital issue on DVDs. They pulled a bait and switch there, paid us “producer's gross” instead of “distributor's gross” and we ended up getting only a quarter of the residuals we had bargained for. But this distinction is even more vital on the Internet, where distributor's gross is relatively easy to monitor and producer's gross is (as before) much smaller, and, more significantly, impossible to monitor. If we accept a piece of “producer's gross”, we'll be taking whatever they decide to give us… and you know what that means.

So, they knew we wouldn't and couldn't accept their ultimatum. They placed a gun to our heads and asked us to pull the trigger on ourselves, or else. The upside on that one is hard to figure.

I believe it is important we cover animation and reality writers. But let's say you don't care a whit. Guess what? The Companies don't much care about them either. They're attacking us on this issue because they know it is a potentially divisive one. That's what their much-touted PR men were brought in to find - our “hot buttons.” They want to create wedges. They want us to take all of our issues off the table except the big one. And then we'll have no room to horse-trade in any direction.

What does this mean? In really simple terms, it means they planned to do exactly what they did: walk out, mount a PR campaign against us, and hope we would (again) bargain against ourselves.

Now let me address these supposed wedge issues directly. First of all, the people who write reality and animation are like us. (In many cases, they are us.) They're writers. They ought to be in the Guild, they ought to be covered. The absence of coverage for animation writers has cost them a ton of money in residuals. The Lion King, Shrek, Monsters Inc., Ice Age - you name it - no residuals.

And as for reality writers, they are working sweatshop hours - 12, 14, 16 hours a day on a flat salary with no overtime. What these companies are doing to them is illegal. They know it's illegal. And, thanks to the Guild, the State of California now knows about it too. We're not just talking about fines here; we're talking possible felonies. The state is investigating, and these abuses could cost the companies millions and millions of dollars in penalties. They may well decide that it's cheaper to let the writers join the WGA than to pay huge penalties and risk going to prison.

Think for a moment about what it would mean if reality writers were in the union as they deserved to be. During a strike, there'd be no American Idol, no Fear Factor or Amazing Race or whatever the big thing is today. No shows to stick in to replace dramas and comedies from striking showrunners. No network season period. All that would be left is commercials and reruns, and we know how well reruns are doing, don't we. In normal times, reality employers would be paying into our Health and Pension funds, and that would benefit us all as well.

If the companies can divide us on these issues, they can divide us on the Internet too. They could craft proposals that appeal mightily to our screenwriters but not to our TV writers or vice versa.

Anyone remember the 88 strike? If you weren't there, trust me, it wasn't pretty. Management's friends, lawyers and managers and agents and folks who surely had only our best interest at heart convinced television writers that they shouldn't fight for revenue for this new fangled video tape thing because it was going to amount to pennies, and anyway, their TV shows were never going to end up on video tape. And so the guild cracked in two, we gave up a fair video and DVD formula we had hard won, and in so doing gave away millions and millions of dollars - screen and TV writers included.

I managed to fail my way to the top in television. I did this by following two rules. 1. Negotiate from strength. 2. Trust my negotiator.

In my 25 odd years in the guild I have honestly never seen it more united. That is our great strength and we all know it. Now if we want to get a fair deal we need to use it. We need to be smart enough to act dumb: shut up and keep walking. We need to stop inspecting every move and wondering why our negotiators aren't doing this our are doing that. They are doing a great job. We put our trust in them, we need to support them. If they tell us the best thing we can do is walk in circles, that is what I will be doing, every day. Until we win. And we will.

See you on the sidewalk.