Producers agree to 2-week talks

In a sudden reversal, the Writers Guild of America has agreed to start early negotiations with producers.

The WGA, with less than four months left on its current film-TV contract, and chief execs of Hollywood studios and networks have agreed to launch formal negotiations over a new contract on Jan. 22.

The WGA has also imposed a two-week limit on the negotiations, declaring it will suspend talks if it does not reach a deal within that period. That would probably mean the WGA would not be back at the table until about a month prior to the May 1 contract expiration.

The writers move is the first optimistic portent on the Hollywood labor scene since the standoff began. Efforts at peace negotiations have thus far been stalled by the threat of rollbacks.

Although CEOs reacted with edginess to the prospect of the WGA’s two-week deadline, they agreed to move ahead with the negotiations in hopes of averting back-to-back work stoppages by the WGA and by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

The actors’ film-TV pact expires June 30, and leaders of those unions have already said they will not be ready to launch negotiations until March at the earliest. The WGA talks could also lead to SAG and AFTRA allowing the WGA to handle at least part of their contract negotiations. There appears to be a tacit agreement that the actors unions will take that step should the WGA-AMPTP negotiations prove fruitful.

Should the WGA strike, the fall TV season would suffer serious damage; if SAG and AFTRA strike, production would halt.

Main issues

The WGA’s major issues include improvements in residual payments for cable, foreign, video and DVD; bringing Fox TV residuals up to the level of ABC, CBS and NBC and moving the WB and UPN in that direction; Internet jurisdiction; elimination of the possessory credit as in “A Film By”; requiring that writers be employed for the duration of principal photography and giving writers improved access to the filmmaking process.

The companies, which are repped by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, have indicated they will be arguing that their profit margins have been squeezed because of skyrocketing costs and the overall fragmentation of the entertainment business, with revenues coming from many more different sources.

AMPTP prexy Nick Counter has stressed that the issues need to be placed within the context of how the industry has shifted over the past five years.

Potential success of the upcoming talks will likely revolve around whether the WGA perceives that the companies are proposing rollbacks.

WGA West exec director John McLean leveled that accusation two weeks ago, saying Counter had indicated in October that the AMPTP would seek rollbacks in network residuals.

Counter has denied proposing a rollback, contending that the WGA issued five conditions for early negotiations which the AMPTP refused to meet.

The AMPTP formally proposed early talks on Oct. 30, prompting WGA West prexy John Wells to respond that his side could make such a commitment only if the companies showed they were “serious” about addressing important issues.

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