Writers Guild of America President John Wells is also one of the most successful TV producers in town, with ‘ER,’ ‘Third Watch’ and ‘West Wing’
No one should expect John Wells to show up anytime soon in a Hollywood unemployment line. Not only is he the president of the Writers Guild of America, he also is executive producer of TV’s No. 1 show, “ER” and two new shows, NBC’s “Third Watch” and “West Wing,”
As executive producer of “ER,” Wells has won numerous honors, including an Emmy. He is considered one of Hollywood’s best delegators of responsibility, a gift that allows him to juggle his current projects with his duties as president of the WGA.
Though highly successful in television, Wells is moving into feature films at Warner Bros., the studio that produces “ER.” In development are “Company Man,” based on a script Wells has written about a high-flying executive who gets fired during a corporate downsizing.
Wells’ toughest job, however, could be coming up soon negotiating a new WGA contract with Hollywood producers and studios. The current agreement ends May 1, 2001, and already there is talk that the WGA may hit the streets like it did in 1988.
That won’t be the only high-level negotiation in which Wells will be involved. NBC’s contract for “ER” also ends in 2001, just 30 days after the WGA contract.
Question: There already are reports that there could be another writers strike when the current contract ends in May 2001. Is this saber rattling?
Answer: I wouldn’t want to characterize this as saber rattling or as not being serious. The business has changed substantially over the last 15 years and it has been a long time since we have addressed some of the areas of concern. The universe for the financial revenue stream for our members has changed dramatically in those years. First and foremost is the residual structure where, particularly in television, members made a substantial amount of revenue from repeats that were syndicated to local stations. That has changed. There were years when you had “Magnum, P.I.,” and “Mannix” running all afternoon long. Those spots have been taken by talk shows and other different kinds of first-run material.
Q: How does that play out financially?
A: It used to be that anybody who wrote an episode of a TV series would receive two to two-and-a-half times in residuals what they received in their up-front compensation. They planned their retirements on this. Now with basic cable and foreign markets, which have become major sources of revenue for the studios, the members see very, very little money. In basic cable it is not uncommon to receive 40 checks for $2 each to replace what used to be a $15,000 check.
Q: How did this happen?
A: The (production) companies asked (the union) for favorable formulas when these markets emerged many years ago, and now our argument is that these markets are fully emerged and mature and it is time for us to readdress it. They have recouped substantial amounts of their investment and profits from these emerging markets, and we made very low, entry-level deals. It is time to share the wealth with those who helped create that wealth.
Q: We exist in a world of media consolidation. What do you make of the sweetheart deals that the studios have with their cable networks to low-ball profit participants?
A: What has happened is that while our residuals are low, the book values of those companies have gone well into the billions. At what point, when we have reduced residuals on Fox and reduced residuals on The WB and UPN, do they no longer need a 40 percent cut in their costs as a startup?
Q: How does this play out in foreign sales?
A: In foreign, we have a residual formula that hasn’t changed since 1970 in which the companies buy out (the writer) in perpetuity for a single payment, something in between $2,500 to $6,000 for the life of the show. You take a show like “ER,” which has made millions of dollars per episode in foreign, and the buyout to the individual writer is $5,000 and some change in perpetuity.
Q: MGM’s Irving Thalberg once said, “The writer is the most important person in the motion picture business and he mustn’t ever find out.” Why do so many producers seem to hate writers?
A: My experience is that they don’t hate writers, but they perceive them as interchangeable. The problem is, there is no industry standard for at least a modicum of what is acceptable behavior toward a writer. We are looking for this, and this will be part of the negotiation.
Q: Racism is a thorny issue in Hollywood these days. Will you bring this issue up in the next round of negotiations?
A: We need to talk about it a great deal and exert some peer pressure for people to address this issue.
Q: What about ageism, especially in television?
A: There is a perception driven by the advertiser demographic that an older writer can’t write for a younger viewer, and that is what has held people back on the racial diversity problems as well. It is foolish and silly.
Q: What causes it?
A: It is tied to younger people being uncomfortable trying to hire and to work with older people. In many cases they feel inexperienced, and they don’t want to be challenged that way. Our best weapon is to keep on talking about it.
Q: Why does “ER” continue to work?
A: It struck some kind of chord and people are in the habit of watching it, and we continue to deliver a really good show.
We also were interested in doing something very specific with “ER” when it began. We felt there was a lot of turmoil in health care and a general sense that doctors were only in it for themselves. But there is this whole group of people, residents, who make very little money and who have been running up huge debts for four and five years and who go into inner cities and make $22,000 to $24,000 a year but are committed to that work. We felt that they were being unfairly tarnished with the large brush attacking all health care. That is the story we went into it to tell, and people responded to it because we really do want to believe in our doctors.
Q: Any second thoughts over the reported $13 million deal struck with NBC to renew “ER”?
A: Well, it’s not $13 million. It is less than that. In the early going, NBC kept every dime and Warner Bros. ran up some tremendous deficits. When it came time to renegotiate, we said, “You guys kept all the pie for the first four years and we want to make up what you didn’t share with us in the beginning.” NBC made a tremendous amount of money $250 million a year in net revenue. Warner Bros didn’t share in a dime of that.
Q: “ER” is still the No. 1 drama in television. What’s the next move, financially?
A: We are generating a substantial amount of income for everybody involved. There is going to be another whole license-fee negotiation that is going to come up within the next six months.
Q: What is a typical day for you?
A: Long. I am in New York on “Third Watch,” and I am here for “West Wing,” “ER” and the Writers Guild. My home is here but I have a small place in New York. I am in the office between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., and I try to be home most evenings, but there are one or two evenings which involve a WGA meeting or staying in the office at Warner Bros. for editorial purposes. Most of my writing is done on the weekends. It is seven days a week, and I enjoy it.
Q: How can you run the WGA, “West Wing,” “ER” and “Third Watch”?
A: I really don’t run any of them. I really work with good people and I try to use what I know and what my experiences have been and try to pick my moments when I can be my most effective, and I delegate. There is absolutely no way to do one television show without delegating, much less to be involved in a number of things. I have a wife and a child and friends and I enjoy some of my success, but I want to make sure I enjoy my life.