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Writers Surprise With Picket Prowess
Laugh Lines in the Hollywood Strike
By BROOKS BARNES
November 25, 2007
When the 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America decided on Nov. 4 to strike, Hollywood wondered how hard the white-collar group would fight. The guild addressed the worry before the first pickets hit the streets.
“In years past, our picketing schedule has gone, ‘Picket on Mondays for two hours and then meet at a bar until the following Monday,’” said David Young, the union’s director, early this month. “That’s not how we’re going to do it this time.”
Studio executives rolled their eyes, but they soon blanched as well-organized pickets fanned out across Los Angeles and New York, and only grew in intensity. It turns out, many union members say, that striking in Hollywood — at least short term — is not that bad. A lot of strikers say they are enjoying networking, taping YouTube videos, organizing theme days and dreaming up placard slogans.
“The studios think we are having a horrible time out here,” said Richard Potter, a screenwriter who made “Strike Dancing,” a YouTube video showing pickets bebopping in formation to “Play That Funky Music.”
“What’s actually happening is we’re having a great time.”
The video is one of dozens on YouTube — most of them humorous, or trying to be — that are helping the union win the public relations war. A nationwide poll released on Nov. 14 by Pepperdine University found that 63 percent of Americans sided with the writers.
No one contends that writers would prefer to be walking in circles and shouting into megaphones than working. On Monday, the union and the studios will resume contract negotiations for the first time in 22 days. Writers are crossing their fingers that the studios will agree to give them a bigger cut of the proceeds from Internet reruns and that the strike will soon be over.
Still, certain perks in picketing are undeniable. For a lot of writers, picketing at a studio’s front gate is the closest brush with the movie industry’s halls of power they have ever had. They can wave to Steven Spielberg as he drives onto the lot and rub elbows with notably successful people in their field, like Steven Bochco, Tina Fey and J. J. Abrams, the creator of “Alias” and “Lost.”
Even some prominent screenwriters have been star-struck. “I didn’t know J. J. at all, except as a geeky fan,” wrote John August, the writer of the “Charlie’s Angels” movies and “Big Fish,” on his blog. In another posting, Mr. August offered to chat with screenwriting students while marching.
“Get to know some film and TV writers and talk to them about their work,” he wrote. “I was delighted to finally meet Gary Whitta,” a screenwriter and comic-book author.
There have been other attractions for striking writers. A special theme day, Picket With the Stars, drew celebrities like Ben Stiller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Ray Romano in Los Angeles. Susan Sarandon and Robin Williams turned up in New York.
To help cheer up striking members, and to keep reporters interested, the union helped organize impromptu concerts. The pop singer K. T. Tunstall performed an acoustic set outside an NBC parking lot in Burbank, Calif., while Alicia Keys headlined a rally last Tuesday that tied up sections of Hollywood Boulevard.
“Forget the strike, I’m just here to be entertained,” remarked Toni Perling, a television writer whose credits include “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” as Ms. Keys got started.
She had come to the right place. “When somebody is doing us wrong, they must go!” Ms. Keys shouted, before sitting down at a piano on the back of a truck. Several dozen writers jostled to take her picture with their camera phones.
Pickets have been well fed. The longshoremen’s union sent turkey baskets, and stars have played caterer roles. Justine Bateman brought tacos, Jay Leno chipped in doughnuts, and Jimmy Kimmel contributed burritos. Eva Longoria handed out slices of pizza.
Some union members say they are criticized no matter what they do on the picket line. At first, they drew comments about boring signs.
“People would say, ‘You people are writers — where is the creativity?’” recalled Joe Medeiros, head writer for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Early in the strike, most pickets carried signs reading simply, “On Strike.”
Writers took note. “They Wrong, We Write” became popular, as did slogans ridiculing J. Nicholas Counter III, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios. “Nick Counter Hates Babies and Puppies” was a favorite, and Katherine Heigl, a “Grey’s Anatomy” actress, weighed in with “Nick Counter is a Wiener.”
One person mounted a typewriter on the end of a metal crutch and waved that in the air.
The seeming contradiction between the serious strike and the circus sideshow was on display at the Hollywood Boulevard rally, which drew more than 4,000 people.
Writers pumped their fists in the air, cheered speeches by union officers and shouted slogans like, “On strike, shut ’em down. Hollywood’s a union town.”
Even the Teamsters were impressed.
“Wow,” said Leo Reed, the gruff secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 399 and director of its motion picture division. “You are acting like a militant union.”
At other times, the protest more closely resembled a Halloween parade. A man in a full Spider-Man costume picketed, as did someone dressed as the Incredible Hulk. Seven elderly actors who played munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz” rode by in a carriage, waving.
“How about a round of applause for the Lollipop Guild?” a union speaker said.
Roxana Brusso, an actress picketing in support of the writers, made an adjustment to her Ugg boot and shrugged. “Well, that’s Hollywood for you,” she said.
While some union-sanctioned theme days have included “Bring Your Kids” and “Performers With Disabilities,” C. Jay Cox noticed that there was no day for gay and lesbian writers. So Mr. Cox, who wrote the screenplay for the movie “Sweet Home Alabama,” organized one.
“We’ll get a chance to catch up with some old friends,” his invitation said, “oh-so-casually check out some potential new ones and make snide comments about one another’s attire.”
Silvio Horta, writer-producer of “Ugly Betty,” declared the gay-theme day “like a party at my house.” About 200 people attended, eating Pinkberry yogurt and grooving to an iPod playlist as they marched. Nia Vardalos, the writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” handed out fruit bars.
Not everyone in the Writers Guild of America appreciated the effort. “Every other day I get some new mass e-mail from the WGA about what ‘fun’ themed strike event is coming up,” a writer on an industry blog said. “Is this a strike or a social event?”