Alumni TV writers on strike find outlet

On Nov. 6, just one day after the Writers Guild of America declared a strike against the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers, writers and directors on picket lines itched for a return to their formerly creative lives. And it was only a matter of time before a cohort of Yale alumni and other writers, producers and actors found one — and launched a Web-based reaction.

Project Speechless, a series of brief public service announcement-like skits and scenes shown on the Internet, convey the “speechlessness” of actors without scripts. The dispute between the creative forces and the ruling media moguls, is a response to disagreements over renegotiating writer’s contracts — which determine profits from DVD sales — and, most importantly, movies’ and TV’s future on the Internet. So in an effort to voice the opinions of the writers, the shorts began as a new vehicle for striking, said their creators, movie director George Hickenlooper ’86 and screenwriter Alan Sereboff.

“After the first day, I looked at Alan and said, ‘This whole debate is about the Internet,’ ” Hickenlooper said. “What better way to make a statement than to use the medium itself, but in an interesting way.”

Within days, Hickenlooper and Sereboff rallied together a creative team of filmmakers. Using their own money, the pair set out to capitalize on the “democratization of storytelling,” said Charles Eglee ’74, another Yale alumnus who is also spearheading the effort. Project Speechless is a form of “art therapy,” promoting creativity despite the strike, he said.

When the word got out about Project Speechless, a number of stars jumped aboard, Eglee said. The videos, inspired by Andy Warhol screen tests, feature dozens of A-list actors and actresses including Sean Penn, Jay Leno, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Laura Linney, Susan Sarandon, David Schwimmer and many more.

“What is so remarkable about this strike is that the [Screen Actors Guild] actors and the WGA writers really understand how interdependent we are and that our fortunes are truly linked,” Eglee said. “For these actors to come forward and be naked and vulnerable to make a points is, in my estimation, heroic.”

One of the videos, a spoof of Alcoholics Anonymous, depicts Laura Linney as a neurotic “actor without a script.” Another features Amy Ryan and Patricia Clarkson DRA ’85 acting out advertisements from a phone book, an ironic comment on the dearth of scripted material available now.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who appears in one of the shorts, said although she worries about the effects of the strike on her CBS sitcom — “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” which shut down the first day of the strike — she fully supports the writers. And she said Project Speechless is a terrific means of communicating this message.

“It’s a great way for the actors to show their support very succinctly,” Louis-Dreyfus said.

Kamala Lopez ’86, who has known Hickenlooper since they were projectionists at the Yale Law School Film Society and produces the Project Speechless videos, said she immediately saw this as an opportunity to reach the masses.

“This has the potential to turn public opinion to our side,” she said. “It proves why the writers and actors are so valuable to this business model.”

In an effort to avoid the hegemony of corporate-owned media, Project Speechless debuted the shorts on Deadline Hollywood Daily, a controversial blog written with a pro-writer bias by Nikki Finke.

For many, Eglee said, the dispute has culminated into a divide between the corporations and the creators.

“On some level you’ve got skyscrapers filled with business-affairs people yet [they’re] almost oblivious to the fact that they rely on us for the product we create,” he said.

ABC network executives declined to comment on the Writers Guild Strike.

Jonathan Kesselman, the instructor of the Timothy Dwight seminar “Writing Comedy for Film and Television,” said as a writer, he considers the strike a middle-class struggle on behalf of the portion of 12,000 members of the union who are not millionaires.

But strikers may not consider the enormous ramifications of the strike on the $447 billion Los Angeles economy — 7 percent of which depends on entertainment-related revenue, according to the Los Angeles times.

Tze Chun, a young writer for a delayed ABC series, said he is confused by the media’s portrayal of the strike as a social gathering.

“It’s not that funny,” he said. “We are all unemployed.”

Lana Clark, Eglee’s now-former assistant, was laid off by her corporate employers, Fox, the day the strike began. While she said many assistants are out of work, as an aspiring writer, she supports the strike for its affect on her future career.

As for a potential settlement, the forecast is grim, writers said. Recent announcements from Patrick Veronne, president of the Writer’s Guild, have been pessimistic, saying AMPTP board members are refusing to accept strikers’ demands.

The last WGA strike, in 1988, lasted for five months and cost the city of Los Angeles nearly $500 million in lost revenue. The main conflict then was the percentage of profits writers received from VHS sales and airing television series reruns.

Just as 1988 was a pivotal year that led to the boom of reality television, Hickenlooper said, 2007 is a major turning point in the history of entertainment. He speculated that the strike could change the system of broadcast television and said he sees it as a catalyst for a new Hollywood.

“Hollywood is a very hierarchical culture,” he said. “[The strike] has really brought out the humanity of Hollywood.”

Last Thursday, after being contacted by the legendarily anti-commercial filmmaker Woody Allen, Hickenlooper, Sereboff and their producers flew to New York to film a 45-second Project Speechless video at Allen’s New York apartment. It will debut on www.speechlesswithoutwriters.com later in the week.

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