January 10, 2012



December 6, 2007

Picking the Enemies' Brain

Several days ago, instead of the usual update on the nuts-and-bolts contract negotiations, Writers Guild members received a fascinating bulletin from fine screenwriter and possessor of excellent surname Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society, What About Bob) recounting his encounter with a Nick Counter-type.

I'm taking the liberty of posting the anecdote here in its entirety. Useful stuff for anyone who finds himself in a negotiation over salary, benefits or a possible swap of collectible plastic 3D cameras and authentic Bazooka Joe premiums.

(Incidentally, the What About Bob poster well symbolizes the contract negotiations, don't you think?)

Fellow Members,

A few years ago, I was on the WGA Negotiating Committee. As negotiations with the AMPTP were drawing to a close, I went to a dinner party where I happened to be seated next to a gentleman who until recently had been for decades the chief negotiator for the Companies in another segment of the entertainment industry. He was a wiry guy, and he had a sense of humor. When I asked him if he was the Nick Counter of that particular part of the industry, he smiled and said wryly that he thought he was better than Nick but, yes, that was a fair comparison. He said he knew Nick and admired him. For an hour and a half, sprinkled in with the small talk, he told me about his negotiating strategy. After the party, I went to my car and jotted down as much of it as I could remember. I thought it might be useful to share it with you now:

Strategy for Hardball Negotiations:
Piss off the leaders and spokespersons for the other side. A leader who loses his temper loses something in negotiations. Why?
1) Anger clouds judgment.
2) It’s human nature to want to be liked, even in a tough-as-nails negotiator. A person who loses his temper is embarrassed, usually comes and apologizes, and always gives something away to get back into the good graces of the other side.

The end game is the money, but hardball negotiations aren't about money, until the end. The real game is dividing and conquering.

* Lower the expectations of the other side, divide and conquer.
* Raise and lower the expectations of the other side, divide and conquer.
* Do everything possible to destroy the credibility of the other side’s leadership, divide and conquer.
* Use confidants and back channels to go over the heads of the stronger leaders to the softer targets. Divide and conquer.
* When you figure out the other side’s bottom line, offer a fraction. It’s surprising how many times that stands.

Sound familiar? If you examine the recent "leaks," comments, and press releases from the other side, you'll realize this is exactly the strategy the Companies are employing against us today. And why not? It's worked for them for the last 20 years! They are putting us on an emotional roller coaster by raising and lowering our expectations, attacking our leaders, trying to pit the town against us, refusing to move on the issues that matter to us, bragging about their generosity when the opposite is true, fear mongering and claiming we're going to ruin this industry – hoping we'll splinter, lose faith in and attack each other, negotiate against ourselves, and cave.

As events unfold in the next several days and weeks, we should have no doubt about what the Companies are really up to and what to expect from them. But this time, in every way possible, we must let them know we're on to them and their strategy won't work. We understand their game, our solidarity and resolve are greater than ever, and we're going to stay strong – and reasonable – until we get a fair deal.

Let's return to the picket lines every day with a powerful show of force. As Patric says, we're all in this together.

In solidarity,

Tom Schulman
WGAW Board of Directors

November 26, 2007

How to Correctly Blend Comedy and Drama

I chastised a reporter who wrote an article in the New York Times that I felt trivialized our struggle. It's fitting, therefore, that I praise another NYT reporter for hitting a narrow target of tone just right. I think this article captures the mood on the pickets: serious, of course, but with an air of joviality, humor and comradeship born of solidarity. Check it out:

Laugh Lines in the Hollywood Strike

November 20, 2007

'If They Don't Give You What You Want, You Take It'

I love being loud and right, and it doesn't happen often. But today's rally on Hollywood Blvd by thousands of members of the Writers Guild of America and supporting unions proved the recipe.

The highlight of the speechifying had to be the head of the local Teamsters. Unlike the handpicked Latinate diction of the writer-speakers, this bruiser pulled no punches. "I've been advised by attorneys to be careful about what I say," he started, then exhaled something that sounded to me like, "Pussies."

He continued: "They don't care how much you protest, or how well you articulate your position. The only thing companies care about is if you kick them in the ass." The spectators bellowed their support as the president of the Guild blanched. I love this guy! He wrapped it up by proclaiming the headline of this post.

I wished I was holding a sign that said, "WGA Loves Teamsters. Honest to God. We Swear. Don't Hurt Us."

In addition to the iPhoto above, here's another shot I took, of my favorite protest sign so far:

Don't Write. Send Money!

I attended the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the West Point of reporting, a boot camp so thorough in its indoctrination of objectivity and fairness that even today I bend over so far backward to see the other guy's point of view that I injure my vertebrae (and sometimes only perceive the other guy's case upside-down). And I've been doing it again as I read the screeds about the writers' strike.

I've been explaining to those who ask me what the "producers" (read: studios) could be thinking when they oppose the writers' demands for equity.

Now, the proper answer for a picketing writer is one of the following:

  • --"They're not thinking. They're too busy using both hands to stuff money into their Twinkie holes."
  • --"They're thinking: 'Fucking monkeys with pencils. Where do they get off asking to be paid just for writing?!'"
  • --"They're thinking: 'Let zem strike. Let zem march. Ve vill show them vat marching means! Ve vill vait until zey are at zer veakest, und zen -- VE strike! Ve bring zem to zer knees! Today, ze various types of entertainment und zer adjunct communications channels! Tomorrow... ZE VORLD VYDE VEB!'"
But I don't say any of these things. I try to be fair and objective. Or maybe the ex-reporter in me figures that my argument will be all the more persuasive if I appear to be objective.

So I say: "They're not monsters, for gosh sake. They're scared. Their job is to maximize the value of the stock of their companies. Anything that might hurt that can have a devastating effect on the corporation as a whole. They see increased residuals as a threat, so they will do anything they have to protect their stock. They're may be in error, but they're just businessmen."

Then I rinse with Listerine in the hopes that it will kill the fecal germs in my oral cavity.

Now comes someone who really is objective, not just pretending to be. He's a computer scientist, and a columnist for Discover magazine. (And if you think that fact that he writes for a living automatically puts him in league with screenwriters, you probably also think that attempting to minimize scab work is the same as McCarthyism, as so many Web trolls have posted.)

On the off chance you didn't catch his column today in a little e-zine called The New York Times (they publish on paper too, by the way), I graciously link to the opinion piece here:

Pay Me For My Content

November 15, 2007

Monkeys with Pencils

I believe in getting to the root of any controversial issue via empirical means whenever possible. In other words, do the math. In my no-stone-unturned search for an explanation to the writers' strike, I've found this groundbreaking study in the pages of the latest National Geographic.

Monkeys "Go on Strike" When They Sense Unfairness

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 13, 2007

In recent tests designed to assess monkeys' sense of fairness, a group of brown capuchin monkeys "went on strike" and refused to perform routine tasks when they saw others receiving greater rewards for the same tasks.

The more effort the primates used to earn a reward, the more upset they appeared to be at the inequity, according to scientists who conducted the research.

"In human terms it doesn't matter how hard you have to work for a million dollars," said lead researcher Sarah Brosnan of Georgia State University in Atlanta.

"But there's a pretty low cutoff point on what you'll do for five."

Building on previous research, Brosnan's team tested six pairs of monkeys on a simple task: handing a token to a human examiner in return for a food reward.

When monkeys noticed that their partners received better rewards for the same task—a cherished grape instead of a bit of cucumber—they became likely to refuse participation, the study showed.

The behavior, called inequity aversion, might have its roots in activities like food gathering, in which primates can suffer if they cooperate with others who do not do their share of work, Brosnan said.

Brosnan stressed that the primates' response wasnt one of simple greed or wanting a bigger payoff just because they knew one was available.

"What really mattered was if someone else got a better reward," she said, "not [just] that they wanted a better reward."

The team's findings appear in the new online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Grapes of Wrath?

Brosnan's team studied monkeys' sense of fairness in a similar test conducted in 2003.

In it, capuchins exchanged a piece of rock with their human handlers in return for a morsel of food.

Monkeys that witnessed their partners getting grapes often refused to conduct future exchanges, would not eat the cucumbers they received, and in some cases, threw their rewards at the researchers.

In the new study, the scientists tried to rule out alternate explanations for such behavior, including the possibility that the primates knew the grapes were available and were simply holding out for a better reward.

The monkeys were sometimes shown a grape before completing their task, but at other times they were unaware a grape was available. There was no discernible difference in the monkeys' responses, Brosnan said.

Researchers also distributed rewards evenly among the monkeys, so that no one animal was consistently rewarded or shortchanged.

The scientists found that the capuchins didn't become frustrated by expecting a grape simply because they had previously received one for doing the same task.

Laurie Santos, a Yale University psychologist, said, "The original study was met with much controversy in the field, including a number of now published claims that the original effect could not be replicated using slightly different tasks.

"Given this level of controversy, it's nice to see that their findings hold up when other alternative explanations are controlled," she added.

Evolution of Justice

Brosnan said her team's research scratches the surface of a philosophical quandary: Is the human sense of fairness instilled by social institutions like religion, or is it the product of a long genetic evolution?

Even if the primates are really displaying a sense of social justice in the experiment, it remains primitive in important ways, Brosnan said.

"We aren't seeing a whole lot of response [when the monkeys] are the better rewarded ones," Brosnan said.

"In humans we've expanded [our sense of justice] to [include] situations where another is treated badly."

Like humans, many monkeys live and interact in groups much larger than the study pairs. Exploring the complex dynamics of those social groups may be a next step for Brosnan and her colleagues.

"We'd like to study those relationships and how they affect their responses to inequity," she said.

And here is the photographic proof:

Look, I'm out of work. I have to have some fun.

November 12, 2007

Watch Moguls Screw Themselves! Amazing! Fantastic!

As a former journalist, I love nothing more than when the facts speak for themselves, and eloquently. I was never a big fan of "New Journalism," in which I shove my conclusion down your maw Michael Mooore-style. No, for me the lovely moment when the perp slings the rope over the tree, ties it around his own neck, and chirps, "Watch this!" So... watch this.

Addendum: I've heard through a WGA contact of mine that the above video was put together over a weekend by a single enterprising Guild member. It's gone mega-viral, with countless hits all over the Internet. Shows you what one person can do, even in our increasingly overwhelming and anonymous time. To the videographer: bravo or brava!

The Shirt Off My Back

Now here's some capitalism I can get behind. The fine folks at Strike Swag are selling strike-related items on a non-profit basis. All income goes to the strike emergency fund,which assists writers in dire need.

And hey -- if you don't back the strike, buy a shirt and burn it.

Please consider visiting www.strikeswag.com and dropping a few ducats.

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