Spielberg Bails on the Beijing Olympics

Will Darfur spoil everything for China?

Steven Spielberg bails on the Beijing Olympics 
        Click image to expand.
Steven Spielberg bails on the Beijing Olympics

Score! As we predicted last year, Steven Spielberg has bailed on his role as artistic adviser to the Olympics, because the Chinese government has not used its influence to quell the violence in Darfur.

It’s been a tough ride for Spielberg, with Mia Farrow pressing him to get out last March in a Wall Street Journal article in which she exhorted him not to be “the Leni Riefenstahl” of the ‘08 games. On Wednesday, Farrow told us that she’s happy Spielberg had what she called “a Lillian Hellman moment.” (Farrow has a knack for allusions to famous ladies of stage and screen, it seems.) In this case, she was referencing Hellman’s refusal in 1952 to name names before Joseph McCarthy’s infamous House committee. At the time, Hellman famously issued a statement that read in part, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” (It’s a good quote, though it seems unlikely that Spielberg will pay the high price Hellman did for her defiance, which caused her to be blacklisted.)

In response to the Spielberg news, a coalition of activist organizations promptly said they will run ads around the world decrying China’s inaction. The next move will be pressuring corporate sponsors, including GE, McDonald’s, and many other giant American corporations. Farrow is already asking the public to call these companies and speak out, and she has conveniently listed contact information on her Web site. Patience, she told us, is an overrated virtue.

No one—not even Farrow—is asking athletes to boycott the games. But gold-medal-winning speed skater Joey Cheeks, co-founder of a coalition of athletes called Team Darfur, hopes some athletes will make their views known, especially when the world’s attention is focused on them while they’re in China.

The hope is to embarrass the Chinese during what was supposed to be a shining showcase for the country. So far, it doesn’t seem to be working. On Tuesday, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy told the New York Times that the Darfur crisis “is neither an internal issue of China nor is it caused by China.” The spokesman added, “It is completely unreasonable, irresponsible and unfair to link the two as one.” (link)

Feb. 7, 2008

Pop Quiz: “The Writers’ Strike—who won?” asks Hollywoodland’s inquiring editor.

The obvious answer after a bitter and expensive strike is no one. But why settle for the obvious?

No, we must go for nuance, which is just as well. Because at this point the outcome in this fight is eminently spinnable. What’s clear is that the deal was pushed through the system so damn fast that many writers weren’t sure what they were applauding at the guild meeting on Saturday night at the Shrine. Many thought they had made gains in new media that really aren’t there—specifically, that the guild had won a percentage of ad money from shows streamed on the Internet.

That’s not exactly true. But maybe it didn’t matter to most of the writers at that meeting. For a great many writers, it was time to end the strike. They wanted to declare victory and go back to work.

To be fair, it appears that the writers made some strides in new media. They pushed up the studios’ number on payments for downloads of their work. They made a deal to get paid for rentals over the Internet, which Apple is serving up soon. They established that they have some jurisdiction over material created specifically for the Internet. But in this and many other cases, there are all sorts of exceptions and caveats that Hollywoodland will never fully digest. So, while the writers certainly made gains, they can hardly claim a resounding victory.

Consider the supposed victory of wresting a percentage of ad revenue from the studios. That was a big deal in this negotiation. In the first two years (it’s a three-year agreement), the deal gives writers a fixed payment—a few hundred bucks—when their work is streamed free over the Internet, such as when you watch an episode of The Office with commercials appended. But many writers felt that a crummy fixed payment was not good enough. So the guild announced that in the third year of the deal—ta-dum—the writer gets 2 percent of revenue from those ads. The Holy Grail!

Except the payment won’t be based on the revenue from those ads. The deal makes an assumption: The revenue will be $40,000. So, the writer doesn’t get a percentage of the actual gross but a percentage of a fixed amount—which turns out to be a crummy fixed payment of a few hundred bucks. And that wasn’t supposed to be good enough.

It seems like sleight of hand to call this a “percentage of gross.” But the Writers Guild leaders say that the notion of a percentage has at least been injected into the process and that $40,000 could actually turn out to be more than the studios get from those ads.

That may be, though it’s also worth noting that in the long lists of exceptions and caveats, the studios get about three weeks to stream those television episodes before they have to pay anything at all—and doesn’t it seem likely that most of the money generated from streaming those shows would come within a few days of the original broadcast?

So, that big win looks a bit chimerical. But the writers had to end the strike now or face the prospect of many more months of being out of work, which many would not have supported. And the guild may have positioned itself well for next time.

The deal supposedly gives the guild a peek at the numbers so it can figure out what the studios really do get from those ads. And the writers have now synced up their contract expiration date with the actors. So should the studios balk at giving the writers a real cut of the gross from streaming video next time (assuming it’s worth having), the two unions could join hands and make some real trouble. (link)

Feb. 7, 2008

Joss Whedon. Click image to expand.
Joss Whedon

Game over? The drumroll, please, as the Writers Guild prepares to brief members on Saturday on the deal that may end the strike.

It surprises naive Hollywoodland to see Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, shrieking in Variety that the guild hasn’t given a verdict on the fate of the Oscars. The guild has said publicly and repeatedly that it won’t grant a waiver if there’s no deal. If, on Saturday, the deal is greeted with thunderous applause, the Oscars will go forward.

Really, Sid, these folks have staked their livelihoods, and in some cases forfeited a fortune, in the hope of getting a deal that means something to them. Why would they stop now and say, “OK—we’re giving up what leverage we have in holding the fate of the Oscars over ABC’s head, because …” Because why?

We refer to a post by writer Joss Whedon on the United Hollywood Web site, which hints that he still feels he has some vampire slaying to do. Speaking of the Oscar telecast, he writes: “[It’s] a f%$#ing awards show. It’s a vanity fair. It’s a blip. We’re fighting (fighting, remember?) for the future of our union, our profession, our art. If that fight carries us through the Holy Night when Oscar was born, that’s just too bad.”

Whedon obviously fears that strike fatigue has reached such a degree that writers will applaud thunderously even if the deal isn’t good. He inveighs against that. “This is not over,” he writes, perhaps with more hope than reason. “Nor is it close. Until the moment it is over, it can never be close. Because if we see the finish line we will flag and they are absolutely counting on us to do that. … Remember what they’ve done. Remember what they’re trying to take from us. FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT.”

Keep your ears open on Saturday night. Listen and try to figure out: Is that the sound of thunder, or thunderous applause? (link)

Feb. 6, 2008

David Geffen and Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.
David Geffen and Bill Clinton

Hollywood Likes Obama: We couldn’t follow anyone in Hollywood into the voting booth, but we’re guessing that the industry’s vote mostly belonged to Obama. Nonetheless, California went to Clinton. That had to disappoint David Geffen, who put credence in a late poll showing Obama seven points ahead and predicted victory for him in the state.

Geffen backed Obama early and attacked his erstwhile friend Clinton with ferocity through Maureen Dowd’s Times column a year ago. Dowd wrote about that again last Sunday, describing a recent encounter in which Clinton vented her fury to Obama about that interview. (Dowd maintained that Obama knew nothing about it before it was published.)

Among those sticking with Clinton is Geffen’s partner at DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg. Apparently Spielberg is isolated in this regard not only at the office but to some degree at home. Obama has captured the imagination of many in Hollywood, and an associate says even Spielberg’s support for Hillary seems a bit dutiful at this point. If she emerges as the nominee, of course, industry enthusiasm will follow. (link)

Feb. 5, 2008

Tina Fey. Click image to expand.
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock

Game on? The town’s breath is certainly bated with talk of a strike settlement. There are some writers who still fear that this could be a cruel psy-ops effort from the studios. That’s a reflection of the deep hostility engendered by the strike and the post-traumatic stress (or is it too soon to say “post”?) suffered by the writers. All of these feelings are real, as the therapists say, but we still believe, as previously predicted, that the strike will settle soon.

Disney Chairman Bob Iger may have backed Fox’s Peter Chernin in a game of hardball, but there’s no way he wants to do without the Oscar telecast on ABC. The studios have achieved their goal: They’ve taken the strike as a chance to force majeure a bunch of folks out the door, and now it’s back-to-work time.

Executives at the networks weren’t clear yesterday on whether writers will start working when (if) the guild leadership approves a deal, without waiting for ratification by the membership. But a fast return seems to be part of the plan. And certainly there is a pent-up desire on the part of many writers to get those pencils back up again.

Of course, this labor stuff is a morass, and it may not be over even when it’s over. The central question is obviously how good is the deal? Assuming it passes muster with the writers, will it be good enough to satisfy the Screen Actors Guild?  If not, what then? SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are fighting—again, still. AFTRA seems likely to go into negotiations on its own as soon as March. Will AFTRA be an easier tumble than SAG—or, in AFTRA-speak, “more reasonable” than those wild-eyed SAG radicals? If AFTRA makes a deal, will SAG be able to keep fighting?

All this is too dreadful for us to contemplate at this time, so let’s return to a seemingly simpler question: Once the writers get a deal sealed enough for work to resume, when do the shows come back? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but network executives say four to six weeks for dramas and three to four weeks for sitcoms. So, there’s hope yet for those with a jones for 30 Rock and The Office. (link)