WGA at helm; Keeping things right side up

Remember the old joke about the actress who was so dumb she slept with the writer? Well, it’s becoming a smarter move.

“Writers are probably slightly more powerful than before,” says Billy Riback, a producer/writer on ABC’s “Home Improvement.””I do believe the writer is better respected in the entertainment community, which is because of the Writer’s Guild. It’s made the industry more aware of writers in the entire process. Writers have a little more input into the final process in television, and even more in film.”

Respect aside, writers are coming into a more financiallysound position as well. In an odd way, the economic doldrums have helped writers. There’s been a move away from the more spectacular, but expensive action scripts to story-driven projects, placing more importance on the writing. Such acknowledgement has helped boost pay scales.

“The recession hit us in terms of number of jobs, but the payments per job have been increasing,” says Chuck Slocum, the guild’s director of industry analysis. (The year) “1992 has been a better year than 1991, when the recession had bottomed out, writing-wise at least. We seem to be in the beginning of a rebound, which we expect to continue in 1993.”

Members’ median annual earnings have been increasing 5 to 6 percent a year since 1990 to the current $ 55,000. This year’s unemployment level has hovered at 50 percent, a slight improvement over 1991.

And although more guild members are unemployed, Slocum says it’s because there are more guild members. Membership–whichcosts $ 2,500, plus quarterly dues at $ 25-plus 1.5 percent of earnings under guild jurisdiction–has been increasing 5 percent annually to its current 11,000 members. As a result, the guild’s $ 8.7 million operating budget is 4.5 percent higher than last year.

Year-end increases

Slocum expects the end of this year to show a similar jump in salaries and numbers of jobs.

Bouyed by this upswing, the guild is now looking toward the next century in anticipation of how it will adjust its compensation packages to a changing economy, technological advances and burgeoning international markets.

As overseas media markets become more powerful, participating countries may want more say in the rules governing writers. The advent of digital compression, which could quadruple the number of broadcasting outlets, and the consolidation of studios and agencies may force smaller players into more fragmented and specialized niches.

“The cost structure of the entertainment industry is going to change,” says Brian Walton, the guild’s executive director. “If the market continues to fragment, there’s a danger of the overscale payments going down. We now have a minimum basic agreement which, in my opinion, undervalues the work of writers. The market right now compensates by paying writers overscale. If that overscale deal starts getting cut back, we may have to push up the scale minimums.”

The 59-year-old guild is the nonprofit labor union for those who write for film, broadcast and cable television, documentaries and informational films. However, on matters of public policy or creative issues, the Writers Guild will associate with related guilds, organizations and associations, such as the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians, and the newspaper and dramatists guilds.

In keeping with its global perspective, the guild is in the process of forging more alliances with international writers’ groups. It currently belongs to the European-based International Association of Audio-Visual Writers and the Washington, D.C.-based Panartes, a body of entertainment unions and guilds in the Western Hemisphere.

“We’re also looking at organizing other areas of writing,” says Walton. “For example, there’s an increasing number of people watching (programming) and writing in Spanish.”

The guild’s primary function is setting, improving and enforcing minimum contract terms. “We negotiate with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers–essentially the studios and production companies that hire writers–every three to four years in the spring. In between, we enforce that contract,” says Slocum.

New contract negotiations were supposed to have taken place this year. But with the 1988 writers’ strike still fresh in negotiators’ minds, the guild and the production companies last year decided to extend the next contract renewal to 1995. The move was designed to allow for modifications to be made along the way, thus reducing the pressure at renewal time.

While the AMPTP could not be reached for comment on this new negotiating approach, the guild says the respect between the two parties is as high as ever and the revised process is an attempt at a more cooperative effort.

Once the contract is in place, the guild has five main functions. The first is interpreting that contract for producers and studios wanting to understand its provisions to avoid contract disputes down the road.

The second is collecting residuals when work is rerun on networks, pay cable and homevideo cassettes. Scripts published in print are exempt. Last year, the guild collected more than $ 90 million in residuals. In the recent past, the guild stepped up its collection efforts by increasing its international collection staff and establishing a joint audit program with the Directors and Screen Actors guilds.

The third responsibility is running a registration service that dates and files original scripts and treatments for $ 20 (nonmem-bers) and $ 10 (members). Should a dispute arise over rights to a document, it will neutrally testify as to when it received the material. The union receives just under 30,000 registrations annually, a slowly rising number each year.

Preventative measure

“It’s more of a preventative measure,” says Slocum. “People know the material is secured and will not attempt to take it.”

The fourth is maintaining a legal department. The guild retains some half-dozen lawyers, who prosecute free of charge for writers contractually wronged by an employer. Rather than the court system, unresolved cases go through an outside and speedier union arbitration process. The guild handles hundreds of cases a year, many of which never go to arbitration.

And lastly, the guild offers support functions, such as a credit union, health insurance and pension plan, and signs up production companies and agents wishing to become guild signatories.

For the most part, the guild earns high praise from members. “There’s more good than bad. Everyone considers the Writers Guild second only to the Directors Guild,” says Bobby Herbeck, who co-wrote “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and now has development deals with 20th Century Fox and Twentieth Television.

“Much to my amazement, they sent auditors to Hong Kong to audit Golden Harvest Film when there were questions about the accounting of ‘Ninja Turtles,”‘ he says. “The union offers a lot of forums and seminars, and is good at supporting us, getting our feet in the door and our scripts sold. They have a great computer bulletin board and a lot of staff members who are busting their butts for us.”

However, Herbeck feels benefits fall short for film writers, who cannot apply film residuals toward health insurance and pensions. As a result, there are film writers, earning thousands of dollars, who have to foot their own health insurance.

“To me, it’s totally outrageous. I think it’s unconscionable that (film production companies) do not have to pay into pensions, while network people do, ” he says. “I’m sure there are other people in the guild that are not pleased with this.”

Balancing act

According to Walton, the guild contract is designed to maintain more equitable rates and benefits between film and television writers. Because film writers generally earn much more for their writing, the guild allows television writers to count more income sources toward health and pension contributions.

“We are constantly looking at our health and pension plans,” says Walton. “The labor laws in the U.S. are pathetic. Because of the special needs of artists, we have to make sure we don’t leave our members with labor laws designed for factory workers 50 years ago.

“We’re very encouraged by President-elect Bill Clinton’s awareness of the difference between the world of tomorrow and the world of the past,” he adds. “This next year is going to be very interesting. We’re waiting to see what changes the President and Congress will bring.”

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