Thursday, October 11, 2012

"Exactly How Badly Do I Need To Be Right?"

A lesson learned.  Or, more accurately, relearned because I deliberated forgot the last time.  And the numerous times before that.

I like to believe that I don’t need to be right about everything.  But a recent experience suggests that that may just be a press release I send myself so I can read it and say,

“What a guy!”

I think the first sentence I wrote was correct, with a single, italicized addition:

I like to believe that I don’t need to be right about everything.

So that’s what I believe.

Unfortunately, this observation has been frequently proven to be wrong.

Here’s what happened this time:

In the vicinity of once every year, in its more specialized version of “Jury Duty”, the Writers’ Guild requires its members to participate in a process for scripts that are submitted to them for arbitration. 

The fun begins when a Guild representative you, and asks if you are available to participate in an arbitration. 

It is not easy for a man who has virtually nothing to do and is transparently terrible at lying to explain he’s too busy.  So instead, I say yes, though I do not hesitate to mitigate my generosity by asking if there’s a lot of work involved. 

My dream is to one day be invited to arbitrate a credit dispute between two writers who write the messages that go inside fortune cookies. 

It’s a five-minute assignment.  You examine the two versions – each of them one sentence long, you make your decision, and you get back to your life.  So far, the situation has not come up.  For all I know, “Fortune Cookie Message Writers” are not even in the Writers’ Guild.

But an arbitrator can hope.

Later that day, I am messengered an envelope containing two half-hour-length scripts and a two-page series proposal, a comparatively light load compared to arbitrations of the past, where I was required to wade through six versions and a “Bible” of a two-hour “Movie For Television”/slash/backdoor pilot.  (The “Movie For Television” is also intended as a pilot.  A “Bible” is a detailed blueprint for the series.)

As usual, accompanying the material and a Manual to guide me in my decision-making is a bag of M & M Peanuts, the Guild’s sugary “Thank you” for agreeing to participate. 

The situation is this: 

Designated “Writer A” (the process is conducted anonymously to avoid, “I love that guy; I’m giving him what he wants” or “She snubbed me at the Emmys; it’s ‘Payback Time.’”)

“Writer A” created a series that sold and is on the network schedule.  “Writer B” wrote the pilot script, and is asking for a “Developed By” credit for their supplementing efforts.  The issue is less a matter of creative proprietorship than of financial benefit:  per-episode royalties, and perhaps a share in the profits, should the series succeed and be sold to syndication are on the line.

Here’s the weird part, though.  In this case, the company making the show is said to be on board with “Writer B’s” receiving a “Developed By” credit.  And so is “Writer A.”   Why is this then in arbitration?  Because according to the Guild by-laws, every “Developed By” credit automatically triggers an arbitration.

So let me be clear about this:  The arbitrators are being asked to adjudicate a dispute that no one involved in the project is disputing.

I read all the provided material, and determine that, in my opinion, based on the guidelines we were instructed to follow, “Writer B” has not contributed substantially enough to the “distinctiveness and viability” of the series to merit a “Developed By” credit. 

Even though – let me repeat this – nobody involved in the project is objecting to it.

As further instructed, I submit my decision via e-mail.  Shortly thereafter, I am informed that there is a disagreement among the three assigned arbitrators concerning the decision.  According to the guidelines, a lack of unanimity automatically triggers a group Conference Call, during which the arbitrators are invited – also anonymously; I am instructed to identify myself only as “Arbitrator Number 2” – to, as our moderator reads from a scripted format, “share your views and listen respectfully”, in hopes that a unanimous decision can ultimately be reached.

(It is later explained that a unanimous vote is actually not necessary; a “two-to-one” vote being sufficient.  So, summing up, I am involved in an arbitration of a arrangement nobody is disputing, followed by an effort-to-reach-a-unanimous- decision Conference Call for a decision that is not required to be unanimous.  Just so you know what I do with my time.)

As is my nature, I anticipatorily imagine how the Conference Call will go.  The other two arbitrators will be in solid agreement, with Earl Pomerantz, lonely but gamely, the “Odd Man Out.” 

I will then, Henry Fonda-style in 12 Angry Men, with indisputable logic and a rhetorically soaring plea for justice, persuade my adversaries I’m right, causing the vote to then change, moving… 


In my direction. 

It turns out I am half right.  “Arbitrators 1 and 3” are indeed in solid agreement, against me.  The part I’m wrong about is, when I try to win them over, my less than Darrow-like arguments fall pathetically short – even to my prejudiced ears – and I lose.    

Sensing the Guild would prefer the decision to be unanimous, I then spinelessly and without conviction change my vote to match the others. 

“Writer 3” tries to make me feel better by saying that when he read the material, he thought the decision was an indisputable “Slam Dunk.”  But, having listened to my arguments, he realized that the situation was not as unequivocal as he had originally believed. 

My response to “Writer 3’s” kindness is to explain that the experience was not without value for me, as I had learned an important lesson.  As I told my “Phone Buddies”,  

“This experience reinforces my decision not to have become a lawyer.”

The line got a big laugh, though it sounded, at least in its intensity, like a “Pity Laugh.”

What I have not mentioned – until now – is how insanely furious I felt.  Hearing those two wrongheaded arbitrators disagreeing with me caused the fingers on both of my hands to curl up in the “claw position”, my throat constricting tightly, stifling what can only be described as an “angry cat” screech.

I wanted to kill those people.

for being beaten in a dispute that, at least on two levels – nobody was disputing it, and the decision did not have to be unanimous – made absolutely no difference.

What does that say about me?  One thing it says is, “Keep Earl Pomerantz away from all issues meant to be resolved democratically – he is far better suited to be a dictator.” 

Maybe that’s the only thing it says.

Though it does remind me of a line attributed to Henry Kissinger, among others, which goes:

“Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low.”

It’s a good line.  Though I have to admit, if a decision concerning the survival of the planet were at stake, I doubt I’d have felt any better if I’d lost.


PaulDouglas said...

You are not alone.
In numerous situations (usually with the wife) where I have stated that I was fine with whatever outcome, and have been forced to pick a side, I become infuriated when my choice is then questioned or debated.

Why insist I make a choice in the first place if you're going to argue with it?

Just let me eat my brownie in peace.

Canda said...

I'm happy the Guild forces arbitration. Too many times, particularly on many of the Norman Lear Shows, it felt like Story Editors and Producers were trying to get shared credit from the writer who was given an assignment, knowing it would get them residual money.

I thought that was piggish.

Obviously, rewrites with the staff, based on anything from the actors having a problem to the network notes force changes that are not the original writers fault. If you're on staff, it's your job to fix scripts.

Also, any writer on staff who is trying to get his or her name on the rewritten script is less than honest, since other members of the staff besides you contributed to it.

Canda said...

I wanted to add one more comment. Just because a writer has "agreed" to a credit, which in this case was letting another writer take a "developed by" credit, it doesn't mean the writer really agreed. He or she may have felt pressure, or felt they had to be a good sport or suffer other consequences.

You were right, Earl, to be impartial and contrary. Who knows? The original writer may have wanted the same outcome as you.