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The New Hollywood Leader

My Question For WGA President Patric Verrone (And His Answer)

by David Brownstein

I had the pleasure of doing a web-radio interview last week on one of my favorite topics: Hollywood Leadership and the Writer’s Guild Strike. Hosted by Coach Tom Floyd, guests were Patric Verrone, President of the WGA, Jonathan Handel, attorney at TroyGould, Coach (and friend) Sherry Ziff Lester and me.

The Leadership Learning?

Of course I’m always listening for the leadership opportunities and ways we can do things differently in Hollywood. In the beginning of our conversation Patric was explaining the events and months preceding the vote and decision to strike. Obviously lots of frustrating time passed that led to the lengthy strike.

But Here Was My Question To Him

Patric, obviously, it was a successful strike and you got great things. With what you learned by the end of the strike —if you could go back in time now—what might have worked differently in July that you discovered in January?

Well, I think the key thing was the involvement of the CEOs. When we were bargaining from July through October, we were bargaining with what Tom referred to as the AMPTP (The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers).

This is an entity that’s set up by the studios, and networks, and other independent production entities, of which there are very, very few now that matter. It’s set up so that they can bargain together. It has an advantage from our perspective too, in that you make one deal and it applies to everybody.

But the people who populate the actual negotiating committee for the side are labor vice presidents. They’re executives within the companies, who are there, basically, to say no.

The decision makers among the studios and networks—the CEOs—were not integrally involved in the process. We had some, what we call, back-channel conversations with a few of them during these weeks and months, but they were not in the day-to-day process.

And it was very difficult to get, as I said, these labor executives, who had been doing this in some cases for almost 30 years, to say anything other than no, ‘cause that’s what they were empowered to say and do.

So had we gotten the CEOs involved earlier, I think we might have been able to make the progress that we eventually did make, earlier.

When you finally did get direct communication with them, what was their attitude?

Well, it differed from executive to executive. But obviously, when we had the conversations with them in January and early February—there had been, at that point, a two-and-a-half-month strike—and a very powerful one that shut down production.

And despite what they’re saying to their stockholders and their earnings goals right now, it was a strike that affected them and this hurt their business. So their interest at that time, specifically, the 2007-2008 television season was about to collapse.

Next year’s pilot season—the development of pilots for the 2008-2009 season—was dead in the water, and was about to also collapse. And the Oscars was in serious jeopardy. We had shut down the Golden Globes….

So the CEOs were interested in ending the strike, in making a deal that would prevent those three things from happening. So the particular personalities of these gentlemen—who were all extraordinarily professional and hard bargainers, but good bargainers—made the experience overall one of let’s see how we can make a deal.

——(end of transcript)

So here’s what I see as the important learning of this information.

Outsourcing Conflict

In Hollywood, we tend to "outsource conflict" as writer/producer Rob Long puts it. We hide behind our agents, managers, lawyers, business affairs people and any representative we can to avoid direct conflict.

In theory this is supposed to allow creatives to work with other creatives without having to get involved in all those messy deal-making disagreements over points, territories, terms and credit.

The downsides are several. On one hand sometimes a deal will fall apart or be substantially delayed because our representative took a harder line than we would have liked. (Conversely, sometimes our reps get better deals than we might have gotten without them)

Developing Our Negotiating Muscles

But more importantly to the leadership discussion, we do not get to develop our negotiating muscles, or develop the understanding of the deal points to help us grow in our sophistication of the business issues at hand.

And by learning to be unafraid of conflict, we keep in better touch with the realities of life, creation and business.

My question, looking forward in the talent/labor negotiations to come, again in 3 years is this: Will the WGA leadership of 3 years from now take the initiative to make direct contact with the studio heads who they just recently made a deal with, or will a new generation of WGA leaders (with 2 year terms) begin negotiating about chairs with Nick Counter again?

And In The Future?

How will the current WGA leadership pass down what they learned to their next generation of leaders?

And will the CEO’s be open to direct talks earlier in the process or wait until a strike is in progress to get more directly involved?

Who do you think showed great leadership in the strike?

What would you have done differently?

What'd You Think?

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