Guild leaders send letter, prep for talks

Will the studios and nets re-introduce rollbacks? That’s the key question the chiefs of the Writers Guild of America leaders have put to members in a special letter dated Jan. 11.

WGA East prexy Herb Sargent and WGA West chief John Wells detailed the fall’s informal studio proposals — claiming they included cuts in network residuals and video-on-demand via cable and the Internet plus no payment for multiple runs — and declared, “The industry and negotiations will be better served by having gotten all of this nonproductive nonsense out of its system. It’s now time to get down to serious negotiations.”

The companies, which have not yet unveiled the specifics of their proposals, have insisted that they did not officially propose rollbacks during last fall’s talks and have maintained that a fair deal can be reached.

The proclamation by Sargent and Wells, sent to 11,000 members and posted on the WGA Web site, is a clear indication of the potential roadbocks faced by negotiators in the upcoming two weeks of contract talks. The bargaining, which begins Jan. 22, could fall apart if the WGA perceives that the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers is demanding rollbacks from the existing contract.

On the other hand, Sargent and Wells said, the inability to begin negotiations last year and the subsequent PR campaign by CEOs may actually help both sides to reach a deal sooner rather than later.

“We were disappointed with the companies’ response to our efforts to find enough common ground to start talks last fall,” the leaders said. “But interestingly, the months of saber rattling and exaggerated proclamations of the coming apocalypse have left the industry uniquely prepared to begin talks. Often in the past all of this chest thumping has taken place during the negotiations, a situation that only inflames what should be a sober investigation of what a fair deal for writers should be.”

The AMPTP offered no specific response although an industry source commented, “The proselytizing continues.”

The AMPTP and several CEOs held a presentation to the town’s leading agents Friday at the Beverly Hills Hotel in which they detailed their recent projection of $2.4 billion in additional costs over three if the WGA’s demands were applied to all major Hollywood unions. The WGA has maintained that the estimate is inflated and that the actual costs for writers, directors and actors would be $725 million.

Sargent and Wells also asserted a deal can be hammered out despite widespread skepticism. “These talks will begin in what can only be described as a frenzy of industry and media conjecture,” they said. “Many have come to refer to ‘the strike’ as if there is no doubt our negotiations will fail. We disagree.”

The union leaders, while admitting they are not “certain” that a deal can be achieved, insisted that the two-week deadline on this round of talks should not preclude a settlement. “If the companies are committed to avoiding a confrontation in the spring and seriously addressing our issues, we should be able to reach agreement within the two weeks scheduled for these talks,” they said.

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