Scribe tribe stays upbeat

'We've got eight more weeks,' McLean assures

Negotiators for Hollywood’s writers issued a cautiously optimistic outlook Tuesday night, declaring to a supportive audience of Writers Guild members that there is still time to reach an acceptable deal with studios without going on strike.

“To put it in football terms, this is half-time,” said John McLean, chief negotiator and exec director of the Writers Guild of America, during a town hall meeting at the Sheraton Universal. “We’ve got eight more weeks.”

And in a telling response to one questioner who asked if the studios want a strike, WGA West prexy John Wells responded by saying he does not believe that is the case, adding that the CEOs appear to be sincere in their desire to avoid a work stoppage once the film-TV contract expires May 2. He also stressed that the talks had not ended on an acrimonious note last week.

The recap of the six weeks of talks drew an overflow crowd of about 700 with enthusiastic rather than raucous responses. Wells stressed that negotiators are focused on realistic goals and striving to maintain a civil tone.

“We’re working in the realm of the practical and the achievable,” Wells added. “We’re not intending to preach but we’re making a concerted effort to reduce the rhetoric.”

The confab was the first such event since talks collapsed over a gap of either $82 million (studio estimate) or $102.4 million (WGA estimate) between the companies’ final three-year offer and the WGA’s. Wells said at the time that the WGA’s negotiating team, which had been under a news blackout for six weeks, needed to meet with members to review the offers.

But many hard-line members of the WGA believe that the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers will not make an acceptable deal until they have been forced to endure a strike.

WGA secretary-treasurer Michael Mahern also generated applause when he attacked the characterization by AMPTP chief Nick Counter that the writers did not understand the economics of the proposals. He cited the presence of McLean, a former network exec, and former MCA general counsel Robert Hadl on the team.

During the meeting, Wells and McLean also continued to stress their opposition to the AMPTP’s proposal that would allow companies to rerun programs within 14 days at a 75% discount on residuals. The “double burst” proposal would lead to a $31 million decline in residuals during the three years.

The companies have disputed WGA estimates and contend their offer amounts to a $30 million pay hike over three years. They argued that the WGA demands are “unrealistic given the current economic climate.”

The WGA leaders also pointed out that, during the six weeks of talks, they lowered their total residuals demands from $161 million to $60 million while the companies offered no hikes in basic cable, video/DVD or network prime time.

Additionally, the WGA leaders repeated earlier statements that they are near a deal on the Guild’s creative rights proposals, which had included elimination of the possessory credit. The revamped proposal calls for directors who have already received the “A Film By” credit to continue to do so and for limiting the credit to 10% of all other films.

Prior to the meeting, the Guild also distributed a written recap of negotiations and a Q&A, both which proclaimed “A strike is not inevitable.”

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