Mahern helps negotiate a better deal for Hollywood writers.
cameras ran on May 4 as Michael
Mahern, AB'72, MBA'73, cochair of the Writers Guild
of America negotiating committee, announced an agreement on a
new three-year contract between film and TV screenwriters and
the entertainment industry.
announcement-after a week of near round-the-clock negotiations
as the contract expiration date came and went-ended months of
tension. It also came only two weeks before industry negotiations
were to begin with the Screen Actors Guild, and both the writers
and actors unions had been expected to strike simultaneously,
halting film and TV production. According to a study commissioned
by the Los Angeles mayor's office, a dual strike could have cost
the local economy 80,000 jobs and $7 billion.
film marketer turned screenwriter-grew up in a politically active
family in Indianapolis. Entering the College in 1968, he joined,
and then chaired, Doc Films, sparking his interest in film marketing.
An early battle-and compromise solution-came in negotiating the
Doc schedule, he says: "We were able to strike a consensus that
we would play popular titles to make money on the weekends and
'auteur titles,' with no thought given to box office, during the
Graduating from the five-year, combined A.B./M.B.A. program, Mahern
spent a dozen years on the business side of the film industry
before switching to screenwriting. He has worked steadily writing
film and TV scripts, with credits including the movie Mobsters
and the television series New York Undercover. He joined
the Writers Guild in 1988, gradually moving into the leadership
as an officer-the only M.B.A. among the Guild's 19 officers and
board members, many of whom are lawyers. His business background
was helpful, he says, in constructing an economic framework for
the WGA during the negotiations.
is different than writing a novel or play because TV and film
are very expensive media to produce. Under U.S. law, the screenwriter
does not have copyright protection," Mahern explains. Early 20th-century
"work for hire" legislation has made the customary terms either
salary or a fee for a script. Residual payments come from the
terms of the WGA contract. "Membership in a union that negotiates
every three years with the industry gives writers an opportunity
to win back at the bargaining table some of the rights that a
novelist has by virtue of his or her copyright."
contractual terms take on more importance because of the intermittent,
project-based nature of the work. The Writer' Guild of America
has about 10,000 members, with only about half deriving income
from writing in a given year. Those who are writing make an average
of $83,000 a year, compared to their counterparts in the Screen
Actors Guild, 95 percent of whom make less than $5,000 a year
year's negotiations were particularly important because there's
been a revolution in industry economics since the 1980s, when
payment formulas and contractual terms were last substantially
renegotiated. With media globalization and the rise in new media
providing more revenue sources for a product, the WGA's primary
goal was to get writers a larger share of the increased value
that their intellectual property generates.
"We approached the negotiation with the viewpoint that we wanted
to be at least as smart and prepared on the business issues as
the industry side," Mahern says. That preparation-and the industry's
fear that the Guild, if forced, would strike-resulted in better
fees, residuals, and creative control.
Hollywood contract creative fees and residual terms emphasize
U.S. feature film and network-television markets. The new contract
improves payments for international markets and for newer media.
These new markets are important-the videotape rental and sale
market, for example, is now larger than that for cinema ticket
sales-and are growing much faster than traditional markets. And
because writers are typically self-employed, residuals are a source
of income when a writer's active career is over.
WGA contract's second major improvement involves intellectual
property and respect. Once writers sell a script, they have no
further guaranteed voice in the production process, although their
reputations are riding on the result. The new contract provides
for a more collaborative approach: writers' visits to sets and
to initial run-throughs of scripts, as well as attendance at premieres
and film festivals.
denouement has been good for all parties. The WGA agreement became
a financial template for the Screen Actors Guild settlement negotiated
60 days later, the entertainment industry did not grind to a halt,
and the L.A. economy did not dip into a recession. And Mike Mahern
has been nominated as one of two candidates for WGA's president.
If elected in October, he will become the first Chicago alumnus
in a top entertainment union leadership post since 1981-85, when
Ed Asner, X'48,
headed the Screen Actors Guild. - David
Nufer, AB'72, MBA'76