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image: Class Notes headlineAlumni Newsmakers
Michael Mahern helps negotiate a better deal for Hollywood writers.

Network-television 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.

The 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.

Mahern-a 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 week."

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.

"Screenwriting 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."

Those 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 from acting.

This 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.

Traditional 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.

The 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.

The 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

  OCTOBER 2001

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