Here Come the Directors!

The writers’ strike gets more complex. Plus: Will Spielberg ankle the Beijing Olympics?

David Letterman interviews Hillary Clinton

A ction: Updating a couple of stories here, from strike to Spielberg.

The Writers Guild cannot be pleased with the late-night situation. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien have already announced that they’re going back on-air without writers in January. Meanwhile, David Letterman is seeking an interim deal for his production company, Worldwide Pants, which owns and produces his show.

Bear in mind that the union has gone to the National Labor Relations Board to complain that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has refused to bargain in good faith. That argument could get at least some traction, according to our legal department, but it will probably take a long time to work its way through the system. Meanwhile the WGA is asking companies to break ranks and negotiate individually. Letterman’s company has jumped at the chance, and hence the problem: If Letterman gets the deal and gets to return with his writers, that penalizes Leno’s writers. “It means the Leno writers say, ‘Why not us?’ ” says an influential guild member. “The answer is, ‘You’re on an NBC-produced show.’ But the subtleties are lost when your rival goes on the air.”

Dealing more broadly, all eyes are on the Directors Guild of America, which is likely to start negotiations next month. The DGA has spent time and money studying the key issue of new media, and it has said that it will share its information with the Writers Guild in a move that may or may not be helpful. If the directors have concluded that they will fight hard for a deal that the writers can accept, help may be on the way. If not, not. In that case, the probability is that the writers will remain on strike awaiting the cavalry, a role played by members of the Screen Actors Guild, whose contract ends in June.

Now for Spielberg: During the summer, we reported on his dilemma with respect to his role as an adviser to the Chinese on the ‘08 Olympics. Recall that Spielberg was pushing China to push the Sudanese government to address the situation in Darfur. He had written to the Chinese in April urging action.

Last week, Spielberg released a letter that he sent to the Chinese president in November. In it, he said that he had gone to New York to meet with the Chinese envoy to Sudan (that happened in September) and had hoped that “China was willing to use its influence to bring an end to the genocide.” Since then, he continued, the situation in Darfur has deteriorated and China’s silence on the subject is “disturbing.” Unless the Sudanese government acts, Spielberg said, a U.N. peace-keeping force will not be able to deploy in January.

Apparently Spielberg’s letter has been met with silence from the Chinese. We are told that he has not attended a meeting on the Olympics since February. If we were the wagering kind, we’d look for Spielberg to exit his role in the not-distant future. The question is whether that will inspire others to follow suit. (link)

Dec. 12, 2007

Writers on strike

Reality bites: If you’ve followed the Writers Guild strike at all, you know that talks between the studios and the writers collapsed Friday and that the rhetoric is, once again, vituperative. We saw a picketer in front of Sony Pictures with a sign addressed to Nick Counter of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that read, “Hey Nick, Count This,” illustrated by a picture of a hand with middle digit extended.

At this point, everyone’s convinced that the studios are in it for the long haul. It appears that they are not interested, and possibly never were, in negotiating with the writers. Some studios may be less hawkish than others, but the more hawkish are in control.

The fact that NBC is refunding money to advertisers because of bad ratings—which weren’t a result of the strike—does drive home the point that the networks are watching their audience disintegrate. And taking a break from popular shows like The Office, while instead programming stuff like American Gladiators and repeats of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (which had been relegated to the USA Network) probably won’t improve the situation.

Still, several of the networks and studios have reasons to keep this thing going. Fox has American Idol in the on-deck circle and can afford to play hardball, as Rupert Murdoch has been known to do in fights with unions. Warner doesn’t have a TV network to worry about, and the strike gives it a chance to offload some deals—perhaps starting with the very expensive and unproductive one with J.J. Abrams. One network source even speculates that Warner and CBS might use the strike as a reason to cut their losses and fold the CW—though a CBS executive scoffed at that notion.

Meanwhile, the order of things is shifting. The winter gathering of the Television Critics Association, at which networks promote their new wares, has been called off. The May upfronts, that lavish ritual during which networks woo advertisers, are questionable.

It seems clear that the networks and studios, at this point, are unwilling to give anything that could be called a victory to the Writers Guild. The betting is that they’ll negotiate with the more accommodating Directors Guild in January, make a deal that the writers may not find acceptable, and then confront the Screen Actors Guild, who will have had some time to contemplate the long winter of the starved-out writers.

Where this will finally leave the business is hardly clear. At this point it seems that if the network business really is the Titanic, everyone is going down with the ship. (link)

Dec. 5, 2007

Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada and Zekiria Ebrahimi

Whew: If you read Monday’s New York Times story on the kids from the Kite Runner movie, you might have heaved a sigh of relief right along with the folks at Paramount.

“The ‘Kite Runner’ boys are safely out of Kabul,” the story began. “After months of worrying and diplomatic wrangling from half a world away, the movie studio that is releasing the tale of childhood betrayal, ethnic tension and sexual predation in Afghanistan has whisked to safety four young actors. They were feared to be vulnerable to reprisal because of the film’s depiction of a culturally inflammatory rape scene.”

Yes, these boys—each accompanied by one guardian—had arrived in the United Arab Emirates in the dark of night. “I can’t really tell you what a weight came off when they landed safely,” Megan Colligan, a Paramount marketing executive, told the Times.

Colligan may feel better, but another source involved in the Paramount effort doesn’t. “No matter how you look at it, their families are going to be split—maybe temporarily or long-term,” he says. That’s a fairy-tale ending?

Bear in mind that the problem arose, according to one of the child stars and his father, because the studio misled the children about the nature of the project. The boys—Afghan schoolchildren—were selected by director Marc Forster and his associates in their quest for authenticity. After the filmmakers got most of what they wanted on film (they had to use a body double for one sequence because the child refused to play the scene as requested), concern arose that the boys might be in real-life danger. The plan now is to keep them in an undisclosed location in the United Arab Emirates until the end of the academic year, at which time their families will decide whether it’s safe for them to return to Kabul.

The studio is still jumping through hoops—apparently with the help of sympathetic congressman Tom Lantos—to get the kids visas for a visit to the United States. The studio was disappointed that the kids couldn’t get to this week’s premiere—but there’s always time for plenty of press whenever they get pried loose. “It’d be great to give them an opportunity to walk onto the stage and feel appreciated for the movie that they made,” Colligan said.

Of course, as our source on the studio’s team points out, it’s quite possible that once the children get their feet on American soil, they’ll do what many in their position might do: seek asylum. If that’s granted, this source says, “The studio doesn’t pay anything and the American taxpayer has to cover everything.” Family members at home would not be in a position to apply, so the split would seem to be indefinite.

When this idea was raised within the studio, our source says, it was met with a shrug. Asked about the issue, producer Rebecca Yeldham told us that the question of seeking asylum “has never come up in our dialogue with the families.” And have the children shared any thoughts on being separated from their families for months, if not longer? Yeldham said she talked to the children last week and found that “all four boys were so happy—so enthusiastic and very excited to be where they are.”

No doubt the Kite Runner boys aren’t the only kids who might be excited and enthusiastic over a chance to be feted by a Hollywood studio, presumably with a little Disneyland thrown in.

And the image of happy, smiling boys might just warm the hearts of Academy Awards voters, too. (link)