Writers Use 'Net to Gain Edge in Strike

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Striking Hollywood screenwriters are still being creative and making funny, topical videos for the Internet. The videos make their argument for being paid when their work is online and in other new media. Their work is giving them an edge in the contract dispute with production studios.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

While the Broadway stagehands strike ended overnight, the Hollywood writers strike, though, goes on. The writers' representatives are still talking with the studios, and the writers are also talking about the studios on the Internet. They are using the same medium that's at the heart of the dispute.

And NPR's Kim Masters reports that the writers are winning the public relations battle.

KIM MASTERS: When writers aren't picketing, they have time on their hands. And they're putting it to use, generating dozens of videos and posting them online.

Unidentified Man #1: It's about whether writers should get paid when media company is making money using their work online.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Writers Guild, WGA. We write the lines that the actors say. And the writer girls won't be ignored because we all know the pen is mightier than the sword. Yo, producers, what you're taking us for? A bunch of…

MASTERS: These videos can be found on Web sites like YouTube and LateShowWritersOnStrike.com. Some try to explain the issues; some are just funny; others try to convey the importance of writing. Actors including Harvey Keitel and Demi Moore have loaned their talents to videos meant to underscore that without writers, they have nothing to say.

This one features Holly Hunter who asks to discuss a script that she is about to shoot with a writer only to find herself connected with a technical support staffer in India.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #2: To address your issue, PC's run many scripts, madam. What model do you use?

Ms. HOLLY HUNTER (Actress): I'm sorry. Maybe I'm not communicating here. Obviously, I'm talking about a film script, you know?

MASTERS: As the conversation continues, it becomes increasingly confused.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #2: I'm sorry, madam. I'll have to refer you to level two support.

MASTERS: The writer's message seems to be getting through. A study by the Pepperdine University Business School showed that 63 percent of the public sides with the writers while only four percent supports the producers. That study has meant a lot to writers walking the picket line, like Saladin Patterson whose credits include the sitcom "Frasier." He says writers aren't striking over something easily grasped so he sent video links to former college classmates.

Mr. SALADIN PATTERSON (Writer, "Frasier"): So many of my friends were very well-educated people who just didn't understand what we're striking about, e-mailed me back saying, wow, that video really helped us understand what the issues are and helped us understand that you guys are really the little guy fighting against the big guy.

MASTERS: Jon Sherman who worked on the CBS show, "Rules of Engagement" says he e-mailed a link to his father-in-law in Northern California. And when his father-in-law's friends expressed the opinion that the writers are greedy, he was armed.

Mr. JON SHERMAN (Co-Executive Producer, "Rules of Engagement"): He was able to send them a link to that video. They watched it and were converted.

MASTERS: Sitcom writer Aaron Abrams(ph) says the videos have also won over associates who work behind the scenes on television shows and who were being hurt by the strike.

Mr. AARON ABRAMS (Writer): The more they see is not a bunch of a elites asking for extra frosting on their cupcake. The more they understand, the more people have come to our side.

MASTERS: The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has published some ads in newspapers, but it's been absent from the Internet.

Entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel says the AMPTP should have done a better job.

Mr. JONATHAN (Entertainment Lawyer): I think the difficulty for the companies is that they are stuck in an old media model, that sort of a commanded control approach which will set the message and will disseminate the message using traditional media - that's the end of it. And I don't think that works in the new world.

MASTERS: Back on the picket line, writer Jon Sherman agrees that videos are a weapon that the corporations simply don't know how to use.

Mr. SHERMAN: It's a response with a point of view that didn't have to go through committees, it didn't have to get approval, it didn't have to be managed and rewritten. And so it becomes something where we're very, very quick fighters.

MASTERS: NPR tried to ask the AMPTP about its public relations strategy; the call was not returned.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

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Curtain Goes Up on Broadway; TV Airs Reruns

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Listen to the Commentary on Morning Edition

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The curtain will go up Thursday on most of the Broadway shows that have been closed for 19 days by a stagehands strike.

Stagehands and theater producers reached a tentative agreement Wednesday night that has kept more than two dozen shows in the dark.

The stagehands settlement came after the third day of sessions between Local 1 and the League of American Theatres and Producers.

Most plays and musicals that were closed during the walkout were expected to be up and running Thursday evening. Details of the five-year contract, which must be approved by the union membership, were not disclosed.

Negotiations Difficult

Negotiations, which began last summer, were difficult, right up to the last day, as both sides struggled with what apparently was the final hang-up: wages. The issue concerned how much to pay stagehands in return for a reduction in what the producers say were onerous work rules that required them to hire more stagehands than needed.

Until then, the talks had focused on how many stagehands are required to open a Broadway show and keep it running. That means moving scenery, lights, sound systems and props into the theater; installing the set and making sure it works; and keeping everything functioning well for the life of the production.

The strike, which began Nov. 10, could not have happened at a worse time for Broadway.

Such popular shows as Wicked, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia! and The Lion King were shut during the lucrative Thanksgiving holiday week. That is normally one of the best times of the year for Broadway, when the city is filled with tourists and Christmas shoppers.

Strike Cost City $2 Million a Day

Financial losses were staggering. But it wasn't just producers and stagehands who were hurt. Actors, musicians and even press agents lost paychecks, too. Theater-related businesses also suffered.

City Comptroller William Thompson estimated the economic impact of the strike at $2 million a day, based on survey data that include theatergoers' total spending on tickets, dining and shopping. The league put the damage even higher.

Eight shows remained open during the strike because their theaters had separate contracts with Local 1, and they were joined by a ninth when Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! got a court order to let it reopen.

The end of the walkout means a scramble for new opening nights for several shows that were in previews when the strike hit. They include Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention, August: Osage County from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and an adaptation of a long-lost Mark Twain comedy, Is He Dead?

Disney's The Little Mermaid already has announced it will push back its scheduled Dec. 6 opening – with a new date still to be set.

Writers Strike Continues

Meanwhile, the Writers Guild of America strike, which has shut down production on many television shows, continues. Negotiations will be held for a fourth consecutive day Thursday, according to a source familiar with the talks.

The two sides have met daily since Monday in their first set of talks since the strike began Nov. 5 over pay for work distributed via the Internet, video iPods, cell phones and other new media.

The guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the movie studios and television networks, have agreed to a news blackout on the talks.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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