Thursday, November 22, 2007

Applying Sunzi (Sun Tzu) Principles in the 21th Century

Alicia Keys performed at a union rally in Hollywood.
Misha Erwitt for The New York Times


Another poor use of Sun Zi concepts. Love it when the amateurs pretend that they are strategy professionals.

There is nothing like amateurs who begins with an goal in mind. But forgot to devise a tangible strategy that possess a critical path.

Targeting the minds of the people on top w/ a combination of unorthodox and orthodox tactics is the
key to absolute victory.

November 21, 2007
Hollywood and Strikers Watch Clock

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 20 Sun Tzu, the Chinese sage, warned of the danger in prolonged conflict. Let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns, he wrote in The Art of War.

In the next week, that advice will probably be on the mind of David Young, a leader of Hollywood’s striking writers, who has closely studied the famous treatise in his time as a hard-nosed union organizer. Now 16 days into a work stoppage, screenwriters and their employers are scheduled to talk on Monday for the first time since Nov. 4.

A rapid settlement would jump-start the entertainment industry. But anything less, and Mr. Young and the writers could be stuck on the wrong side of yet another of the master’s admonitions: Not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided.

A protracted war, much like the sides fought during a five-month strike in 1988, would pose a particular threat for writers. They have been operating under a strategy intended to shock their employers into an early settlement by shutting down as much television production as possible before alternative programs were in place or guild morale began to flag. A lengthy strike, however, could sap the staying power of the writers, who do not have the resources their media conglomerate opponents possess.

Screenwriters, represented by the Writers Guild of America East and the Writers Guild of America West, took to the streets of Hollywood with supporters from other unions on Tuesday afternoon in a demonstration that was meant to telegraph resolve. The show was complete with a performance by Alicia Keys and the presence of eight aging actors who played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.

We’re here to show our teeth, Patric M. Verrone, president of the West Coast guild, said in kicking off the rally attended by thousands. Later, the actress Sandra Oh stepped up the anticorporate tone, suggesting that the crowd boycott Disneyland.

/// Ms. Oh should be aware that Disneyland owns her show. In Hollywood, rising stars can be transformed falling stars in less than a year.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates labor contracts for the studios and networks, maintained silence.

To make progress despite continued animosity, the sides would have to close a wide bargaining gap and no public signals have shown that either is ready to make a substantial move.

For the sale of shows and movies via the Internet, producers have been seeking to impose a payment structure that mirrors the residuals paid over the years for home video showings. Writers, deriding that formula almost from the time they agreed to it two decades ago, have sought far more. Similarly, the sides are in sharp dispute over writer payments for free showings of programs on the Web.

Representatives for both sides declined to discuss the coming talks, in keeping with a mutual agreement not to discuss them publicly.

In e-mailed communications, union representatives told members that employers had been forced back to the table by heavy pressure from the writers. Numerous shows, including Grey’s Anatomy and Two and a Half Men, have ceased work on previously written scripts because the writer-producers who oversee these shows withheld their producing services. But the renewed discussions were also intended to lure these writer-producers, known as show runners, into resuming their nonwriting duties.

We agreed at a meeting a couple of weeks ago that if the C.E.O.’s went back to the table then we would go back in our producer capacity, said Neal Baer, the show runner for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Mr. Baer said many of the show runners he knows have already returned albeit quietly. At least some television executives have hopes that going back to the table would give cover for others to return to work, notably late-night comedians whose shows were instantly shut by the strike. NBC Universal notified the 100 or so employees of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno on Nov. 6 that they could be laid off as of Nov. 19. So far the company has not done that.

Television networks and movie studios are well positioned to withstand a prolonged walkout, Wall Street analysts say. Because of widespread consolidation in the industry, all of the big players are housed inside giant conglomerates. The lights do not even flicker at General Electric, which had $163.4 billion in annual revenue last year, if its $16 billion NBC Universal unit has a bad quarter or even year.

Even the CBS Corporation, viewed as the most vulnerable to a strike because television makes up the bulk of its business, is not in any immediate financial danger. Ratings for the late-night shows have not dipped drastically. And the company has enough original episodes of prime-time shows to stretch into January.

And some studios and investors are actually bullish about the media companies’ near-term fortunes and largely because of the strike. My guess is that during fiscal 2008, a strike is probably a positive for us, as lower production costs would more than make up for any loses from advertising, said Peter Chernin, president of the News Corporation, in a conference call with analysts on Nov. 7.

Mr. Young, who is executive director of the West Coast guild, is well acquainted with corporate strength, something he confronted during the mid-1990s as a leader in the unions that sought unsuccessfully to organize garment workers employed by Guess Inc.

Writing of that campaign in the fall/winter 2005 issue of The American Sociologist, Edna Bonacich, a sociologist who worked closely with Mr. Young both then and later at the writers guild, noted that he studied Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ with deep attention, trying to find its applicability to union struggles. (The fascination has been shared by modern students of conflict as diverse as Douglas MacArthur, Lee Atwater and Michael S. Ovitz.)

/// *** Studying the principles from Sun Zi 's essay is one thing. Using it as a process is another.

Yet another threat to be confronted is the possibility that the Directors Guild of America, its own deal set to expire next June, will soon open its own negotiations and perhaps reach an accommodation with companies, undercutting the writers’ bargaining stance.

In an e-mail message last week, Peter Lefcourt, who is on the board of the West Coast writers guild, told writers who also belong to the directors guild that any near-term move by companies to talk with directors would be like Hitler dangling a separate peace in front of Stalin.

/// *** If the competitor is not positioned to stay ahead of curve. he is behind the curve. @ Collaboration360, our axiom is: "If you are not positioned to win, you are grinding. In a conflict against a larger competitor, you do not want to be grinding. ..."

Gil Cates, who will lead the directors guild in its negotiations, told Mr. Lefcourt in an e-mailed response that his fellow members could do without the writers’ advice. It will be the membership and the membership only who will make the decision about accepting any deal, Mr. Cates wrote.

Progress on any front would be welcomed by many of the directors, production managers, actors, assistants and others who are being shut out of work.

In a grass-roots movement, hundreds of such workers are now trying to organize their own Strike a Deal demonstration in Hollywood on Dec. 2.

It was born out of frustration by people who were working on films and television shows, said Christopher L. Griffin, a producer of the Nip/Tuck series on the FX Network. There’s a general sense of desperation and helplessness.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


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