WGA puts forth calm before storm

Scribes won't meet companies halfway

Now comes the hard part.

Even with the daunting prospect of a strike looming and negotiations having collapsed March 1 after six weeks, leaders of Hollywood’s writers have embraced a low-key posture stressing calm and reason. Beyond that cordial image, however, the Writers Guild of America will soon have to play financial hardball.

While insisting that the two sides aren’t far from a deal, WGA leaders have declared that they won’t simply split the current difference — a gain of either $82 million (company estimate) or $102.4 million (guild estimate) over three years — and go home.

When asked at a March 9 briefing whether a deal could emerge at the halfway point, guild leaders basically said “no way.” They note that the companies have proposed a $26.2 million hike in base-pay increases, but that another $20 million or so in residuals increases won’t be nearly enough.

“That’s not going to get it done,” declares John Wells, WGA West prexy.

Gap still sizable

WGA leaders point out that, during the six weeks of talks, they lowered total residuals demands from $161 million to $60 million, while the companies offered no hikes in basic cable, video/DVD or network primetime residuals and refused to match Fox residuals with those of ABC, CBS and NBC.

“This is not a lot of money,” notes WGA exec director John McLean. “But it does involve a change in their culture where every time we ask for a residuals increase, they say, ‘That’s a strike issue.’ ”

McLean also warned that the WGA may have to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over the alleged refusal by companies to disclose adequate foreign residuals info.

WGA members have closed ranks even with the fast approach of the May 2 film-TV contract expiration. “People are concerned about a strike, but there’s a lot of solidarity,” said a member following the March 6 guild meeting at the Sheraton Universal in Universal City, Calif.

Leaders, who also briefed WGA East members in Gotham offices the next day, received enthusiastic rather than raucous responses. During the Q&A, only one member expressed trepidation over a strike, comparing its probable outcome to D-Day.

“At least we won that,” one scribe called out, provoking a wave of laughter.

Strike solidarity

WGAW secretary-treasurer Michael Mahern asserted that if a strike authorization vote had been taken during the meeting, it would have received better than 90% backing, even though 55% of the guild’s voting members had joined subsequent to the 1988 strike and have never been through a work stoppage.

During the confabs, leaders stressed there’s still time to hammer out an acceptable deal and avert a strike, even with no date set for resuming talks. The WGA’s spin to members also includes pointing out the payouts by individual companies based on the guild’s proposed first-year hike of $28.9 million. Warner Bros. would pay the largest chunk, $5.3 million, followed by Fox at $4.47 million, Viacom at $3.38 million, Sony at $2.91 million and Disney at $2.84 million.

Universal leads the next tier with $1.41 million, followed by USA at $980,000, CBS at $730,000, DreamWorks at $630,000, MGM at $570,000 and ABC at $270,000. Other, smaller companies would pay a combined $4.43 million.

Mahern tweaks the companies for rushing to stockpile movies and TV programs to withstand a strike. Since many such hastened projects won’t ultimately be viable, Mahern notes, the companies have probably wasted more money than the entire WGA proposal would cost.

Crucial component

Wells also made it clear that Internet jurisdiction is a “line in the sand” issue. Many WGA vets believe the guild needs to fight hard on the issue, having granted concessions on new technologies in previous contracts and getting burned.

But Wells also stresses that negotiators are focused on realistic goals. “We’re working in the realm of the practical and the achievable,” he says.

Still, there are significant numbers of hard-liners in the WGA who believe a strike is inevitable. They contend the companies will not make an acceptable deal until after they have been forced to endure a strike.

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