Guild and Studio agree to early talks

Short negotiations could be detrimental

Is two weeks enough?

That’s the big question for Hollywood insiders after Jan. 2’s surprise announcement that the studios and the Writers Guild of America will begin contract negotiations Jan. 22 with a two-week deadline on completing the talks.

If there’s no deal, the WGA will pull the plug on any other formal negotiations until a month before the May 1 expiration of its film-TV contract.

On the one hand, the deadline may complicate what is shaping up to be a daunting negotiation.

Writers are seeking improvements on 42 items, including gains in residuals for cable, foreign, video and DVD; bringing Fox TV residuals to the level of ABC, CBS and NBC; Internet jurisdiction; elimination of the possessory credit on films (“A Film by …”); requiring writers to be employed for the duration of principal photography; and giving writers improved access to the filmmaking process.

Additionally, the deadline may make it problematical for all 14 companies repped by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to agree on every point, even with a potentially nightmarish strike looming.

That’s a significant worry since the AMPTP operates with a “veto” rule calling for deals to be approved unanimously.

There’s also a huge gulf in arithmetic that may prove difficult to resolve in a short negotiation.

Studio CEOs claimed on Jan. 4 the WGA’s proposals will cost up to $2.4 billion over three years if also applied to upcoming directors’ and actors’ contracts; the WGA accused the CEOs of bad math, claiming the three-year number is $725 million including $161 million for writers.

Still, even with these potential roadblocks to a deal, having a definite deadline may not be all that bad.

Veteran labor observers point out that the presence of a specific end-date could force negotiators to get down to business and prevent time-consuming squabbles over minor issues.

Instead, the thinking goes, negotiators will stay focused on resolving key points if — and this is the big “if” — both sides truly want to make a deal sooner rather than later.

Not reaching an agreement represents a high-risk step for both sides since the companies would then likely be accused of union-busting while the WGA would probably have to cope with loss of support within its ranks.

Both sides have insisted publicly that they don’t want a strike, especially since a work stoppage by writers will heighten the chances that the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists will walk when their film-TV pact expires June 30.

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