Of all the executives to watch this year, Patric M. Verrone could have the greatest impact on the industry.
The mild-mannered president of WGA west, a former writer for “Futurama” and “The Simpsons,” is leading what industry critics have called the most militant Writers Guild assembly in years.
Since his election in late 2005, the Writers Guild of America has sued networks and reality show production companies over claims of labor violations, organized a strike of “America’s Next Top Model” story editors and stormed high-profile industry panels with attention-getting protests. Yet none of those headline-grabbing actions compares to what the WGA might unleash in 2007.
In late November, news broke that the WGA has refused to start contract negotiations with networks and studios. The current contract expires Oct. 31.
At the Television Critics Association press tour this month, network presidents uniformly expressed concern about the possibility of a strike, but stopped short of saying any preparatory steps had been taken.
Mr. Verrone has mixed feelings about his group’s image.
“I appreciate, from a dramatic perspective, that not knowing what we’re going to do next works to our advantage,” he said. “I’m content with the place we’re at … that makes it seem like we’re active and involved and the business ignores us at their own risk. But we’re not going to do things that don’t fit within the scheme of getting a good deal for our members.”
Mr. Verrone said that in 2001 under the leadership of John Wells the WGA also had a militant reputation, and that such terms are a way for the industry to try to marginalize WGA leadership. “I’d hate to give in to their characterizations of us because that’s their propaganda,” he said.
During the last round of contract negotiations in 2004, talks dragged out for months past the expiration date without a strike. The resulting compromise agreement failed to address many member concerns, primarily ongoing dissatisfaction over DVD residuals.
This year DVD residuals will again be a focus, but this time new media distribution methods will also be of serious interest. Webisodes, mobile phone content and download-to-own will all feature prominently in the talks.
Also, the WGA is still trying to expand its member base to include reality, animation and cable variety shows. Though the union folded its “Top Model” strike months ago and the former story shapers have all been fired, the guild awaits a decision from the National Labor Relations Board on whether the WGA or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts should represent the former staffers.
As for the prospect of a strike, questions remain about whether WGA members would be willing to strike and, if so, how much impact a strike would have. With the influx of reality programming, production company consolidation and a grim writers job market, the economics are very different than during the last WGA strike in 1988.
“Clearly we’ve always been concerned that a strike doesn’t have the force and effect in an industry where we don’t have greater control of the work force, but I think we still have control over parts of the work force that are hard for the industry to do without,” Mr. Verrone said.