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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | May 12, 2023

Will Dem PR Flacks Help Studios Crush Striking Writers Again?

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Will Dem PR Flacks Help Studios Crush Striking Writers Again?

This article originally appeared in The American Prospect. Read the article on the original website.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA)—representing over 11,000 film and television writers across the country—has gone on strike, bringing Hollywood to a virtual standstill. At issue are writers’ compensation and gig-economy-like working conditions. Despite studio profits surging by nearly 40 percent over the past decade, average writer pay has fallen by 23 percent over the same time period.

Current contracts allow studios to grossly underpay writers on streaming residuals as compared to traditional network syndication; Abbott Elementary writer Brittani Nichols, for example, has said that she earns a $13,500 residual when one of her episodes re-airs on ABC, but only $700 when it debuts on Hulu or HBO Max. Residuals have long been a means to keep writers (who may only pen one or two projects per year) afloat between gigs, and with cost of living surging in New York and Los Angeles, many WGA members are struggling to get by. Striking writers are also calling for stronger minimum staffing requirements to prevent overworking, shorter exclusivity deals that limit their ability to work on concurrent projects, and safeguards around the usage of AI tools like ChatGPT in writing scripts.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)—representing the major film and television studios—has sternly rejected the WGA’s demands, offering a counterproposal one-fifth the size of the WGA’s that fails to meaningfully address streaming residuals or AI.

The AMPTP’s refusal to share profits more equitably with writers should come as no surprise to those who recall the 2007-2008 WGA strike, when writers struck for 100 days over the studios’ refusal to give them any compensation or jurisdiction over online distribution. During that strike, the studios deployed a disciplined PR campaign to justify cutting writers out of “new media” (online downloads and streaming) revenue, claiming that this burgeoning market was “untested” and needed further time for study. Writers who knew their Hollywood history recognized these excuses as the same ones studios used to cheat writers out of lucrative home video residuals in the 1980s.

Though streaming had not yet dethroned physical media as the top entertainment distribution method in 2007, industry experts at the time were predicting its rapid ascendancy. The bosses knew this too: Major studios cut landmark streaming deals with Apple and Netflix during the strike, and the NBC-backed Hulu went live a month after the strike ended. The writers on strike today have learned from the past: Take the studios at their word at your own peril.

What may be less well remembered today are two of the revolving-door PR flacks the AMPTP hired to wage its strikebreaking campaign: political consultants Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane. Formerly top spin doctors for the Clinton White House during the Lewinsky scandal, Fabiani and Lehane (alongside Bush strategist turned Resistance hero Steve Schmidtwere hired one month into the 2007 strike to revive the AMPTP’s declining public image.

The duo were well known for using scorched-earth tactics to defend embattled clients, earning them the moniker “Masters of Disaster.” Prior to representing the AMPTP, Fabiani and Lehane had drawn headlines for their brief work for California Gov. Gray Davis during the state’s 2001 energy crisis, when their $30,000-per-month taxpayer-funded salary and concurrent contract with a major utility company became additional PR headaches for the soon-to-be-terminated Davis. Fabiani and Lehane also had existing ties to Hollywood: They worked for a 2004 News Corp–bankrolled campaign to defeat a Nielsen ratings plan that would have lost Fox millions in advertising revenue, and had tried to push unpopular talent agency ownership rules upon members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

Fabiani and Lehane’s $100,000-a-month AMPTP gig drew immediate alarm bells. In a December 2007 blog post, WGA member Laeta Kalogridis bluntly observed that “no one hires crisis management firms at such huge expense if they’re planning on making a fair deal.” Unions that previously worked with the duo (work that Lehane falsely claimed was done pro bono) severed ties with them for trying to bust the writers strike.

Soon after being hired by the AMPTP, Fabiani and Lehane deployed campaign-style spin and oppo attacks to break the resolve of striking WGA writers. They ran a full-page ad in Hollywood trade publications touting “a new economic partnership” between writers and studios. They created a website with a live tally of the millions of dollars in income that guild members and on-set crew had purportedly lost by striking. They urged studio CEOs to publicly refer to WGA representatives as “organizers” rather than “negotiators” because the former “sound[ed] more Commie.” Lehane even told the press at one point that striking writers were “making more than doctors and pilots,” cynically arguing that the strike was harming “real working-class people” like below-the-line workers who had lost income from struck late-night talk shows (income that the studios were now giving to strikebreaking PR consultants). Striking writers quickly bestowed upon Fabiani and Lehane a new nickname: “Fibs and Liars.”

According to Deadline Hollywood, Fabiani and Lehane were the brains behind a “strongly worded and downright menacing” AMPTP press release breaking off negotiations with the WGA in December 2007. This move allowed the studios, which cited a protracted strike as an “unforeseeable event,” to invoke force majeure contract clauses and cancel multiple writer-producer deals worth tens of millions of dollars, severely demoralizing the WGA’s rank-and-file members. Formal talks were finally re-established two months later after the Directors Guild of America (DGA) separately negotiated a new AMPTP contract for its members with precedent-setting jurisdiction over new media, weakening cross-union leverage for a longer strike (for more on this, check out the documentary film Pencils Down!).

Though the WGA’s final 2008 contract did grant the union jurisdiction in new media, it still allowed studios to grossly underpay streaming residuals, something that was never addressed in the following decade’s four contract renegotiations. In other concessions, WGA also dropped demands to have jurisdiction over reality TV and animation. Though over 90 percent of WGA members voted to approve the 2008 contract, there was widespread frustration regarding whether its limited gains would be enough to keep pace with changing technology. Screenwriter Harlan Ellison, who voted no on the contract, argued that writers had “spent 100 days marching for nothing” if the Guild accepted the AMPTP’s “shit deal”—citing the history of writers playing catch-up with studios on new distribution methods.

For their part, Fabiani and Lehane did not mind burning bridges with labor. In 2010, the duo were hired by Goldman Sachs to rehabilitate its public image after the SEC charged the company with fraud relating to the 2008 financial crisis. In 2011, they directed Lance Armstrong’s damage control effort against a federal doping investigation, even after the now-disgraced cyclist confessed the following year. In 2014, they were hired by the Beverly Hills Hotel to manage boycotts relating to the hotel’s ownership by the anti-gay Sultan of Brunei. That same year, Fabiani helped Texas Gov. Rick Perry defend himself against felony abuse of power charges, telling the press that he was “proud to [help Perry] fight back against this attack on the rule of law.”

Though the Masters of Disaster went their separate ways in 2015, their shared penchant for selling out still unites them. In 2017, Fabiani was hired by Bill O’Reilly just weeks before the disgraced host’s firing from Fox News for sexual harassment, and continued to represent O’Reilly after his ouster. Last year, he quietly advised billionaire developer Rick Caruso’s failed bid to become mayor of Los Angeles. From 2015 to 2022, Lehane was Airbnb’s chief “regulatory fixer” and helped the company campaign against local officials (including now-mayor of Boston Michelle Wu) who sought to crack down on its abusive business practices.

Lehane currently walks the path of many a political hack before him as chief strategy officer for a cryptocurrency investment firm. In an ambitious turn, he even tried to go Hollywood himself: He wrote the screenplay for the 2012 comedy Knife Fight, about a “political strategist questioning whether or not to take the high road as the ugly side of his work begins to haunt him” (subtle!). It received largely negative reviews.

As the strike continues, the AMPTP will likely again lean on well-funded PR consultants to weaken the WGA’s resolve. The studio heads themselves are hardly removed from politics: Disney’s Bob Iger, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, and News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch are well known for their political giving, and Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel’s brother is a household name in Washington (and Chicago). With political connections and millions of dollars at their collective disposal, they won’t be hard-pressed to find a new set of revolving-door flacks willing to bust another strike.

But there is also good news for the writers. Public support for unions is at a 50-year high, especially among young people, and social media offers writers the ability to amplify their message and counter AMPTP’s PR spin. And WGA members aren’t letting traditional media outlets (many of which are owned by AMPTP members) tell the studios’ one-sided story either: WGA member Adam Conover debunked the AMPTP’s talking points and called out Warner-Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s inflated salary live on Zaslav’s own network.

All this makes it much harder for the studios and today’s Masters of Disaster to wage a convincing smear campaign. But if history is any indication, that won’t stop them from trying.

IMAGE: “Writers Guild of America strike” by jengod [Wikimedia Commons, 11/7/07]

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