Scene One, Act Won
Posted Apr 1, 2008 10:46 AM CST
By Lynda Edwards
Can the guy who created a TV cartoon about a robot running a Valentine’s Day dating service—until his malfunctioning metal butt explodes—have the gravitas to win a revolutionary union contract?
Meet Patric Verrone, TV’s real action hero. He was president of the Writers Guild of America-West and chief negotiator for 10,500 TV and film writers during the three-month strike that ended in February.
Verrone, 48, is a lawyer as well as an Emmy-winning producer and writer for the animated series Futurama. And you could say he saved this year’s network TV season.
Verrone helped negotiate a new three-year contract giving writers a cut of the revenue when shows or films they write are used on the Internet. The Writers Guild of America also gets access to studio financial records to check revenue.
“We face some of the same issues as other workers, like employers outsourcing to avoid paying overtime or benefits,” says Verrone.
And when he’s not dealing with contract fine print, he gets to be funny. Really.
Verrone honed his comedy writing as an undergrad on the Harvard Lampoon. After earning his law degree in 1984 from Boston College, he toiled over real estate deals for a Fort Myers, Fla., law firm.
“Then I saw the names of my Lampoon friends scrolling across the TV screen after The David Letterman Show and Saturday Night Live,” Verrone recalls. So he migrated to L.A.
He wrote monologues for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and a Simpsons episode in which Homer throws a chicken pox party. Verrone was at Futurama when he organized fellow Fox network writers to win health insurance from News Corp.
In 2005, Verrone was elected WGA-West president with 68 percent of the vote.
Last November, his union, united with the WGA-East, called the strike that all but shut down network television.
The guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers agreed that streaming on the Web may prove far more lucrative for Hollywood than TV rerun residuals. They disagreed on who should get how big a cut of the new media wealth.
In December, the producers hired California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, along with public relations consultants Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, known in political circles as the “Masters of Disaster” for their effective handling of President Bill Clinton’s troubles when Monica Lewinsky was in the headlines.
“Our members felt panic when they heard the studios hired this team,” Verrone says. “But we had talented out-of-work writers with time on their hands to do YouTube videos to get the message out.”
Colbert Report writers, for instance, crafted a video showing cuddly animals refusing to be adorable on camera to honor the strike. In another, Christina Applegate portrays a striker’s wife desperate to get her husband out of the house and back to work. When she accidentally backs the car over his foot, she calls, “Walk it off!” and speeds away.
More important, old-school unions like the Teamsters and the Screen Actors Guild refused to cross picket lines. The loyalty touched Verrone. He knows the strike caused hardship for union members in catering and hospitality when sets closed down.
“I give [WGAW executive director and former organizer] David Young a lot of credit for that good will,” Verrone says.
Even so, some guild members criticized Verrone for attempting to include reality show writers in the new contract. But Verrone says the effort makes sense.
“The strike kept sitcoms and dramas off TV, but not reality shows. If nothing else, that gives the WGA a strategic reason for welcoming reality show writers.”
Now that the strike is over, it’s back to writing. He’s developing three movies for the Futurama series.
“And I’ll always be a lawyer,” he promises.