Iger, Katzenberg, Meyer sit in on negotiations

Talks between Hollywood’s writers and studios, viewed as the most critical labor negotiations in many years, kicked off Monday amid guardedly upbeat declarations from both sides designed to allay fears that a strike is inevitable.

“We were all very encouraged,” said John Wells, president of the Writers Guild of America West. “We had a very constructive opening round of negotiations. It was cordial and appropriate.”

Monday’s session began with key execs — Disney’s Robert Iger, DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Warner’s Barry Meyer — attending the talks at WGAW headquarters in Hollywood. Following opening statements and exchange of proposals, negotiations began and continued until 5:15 p.m., with plans to resume this morning.

“Both sides know that it’s going to be difficult,” Wells admitted in an impromptu news conference outside the talks. “This is going to be a very tough set of negotiations, but ultimately we believe there is a deal that can be made. We’re going to have to make it sooner or later, and we’d prefer to make it now.”

Flexible deadline

In another positive sign, Wells indicated the WGA would support continuing the talks past the agreed-upon two-week limit as long as progress is achieved, rather than sticking to its earlier threat to delay further negotiations until April if this round does not produce a deal. “Nobody’s going to walk away from the table if we’ve made some real progress,” he declared.

In his opening statement, Iger also took a conciliatory tone. “We are confident this negotiation will be conducted in good faith,” he said. “Our team is prepared to spend whatever time it takes to reach an agreement, to keep our business working and to avoid a strike, which would do grave damage to our business, the people who work in it and our community.”

Iger recalled the failed negotiations in 1988 that led to a five-month WGA strike. “We need to focus on the important issues and the realities of our business, and we should both resist the temptation to resort to polemics or rhetoric,” he added. “Let’s also not misjudge the resolve of both parties in these negotiations. We did that in 1988, and we should learn from that mistake.”

Iger also highlighted the issue of rising costs and fragmentation of audiences. “It is imperative for us to look at the economics of every aspect of our business in order to maintain viability and profitability,” he said.

Katzenberg said outside the talks that the companies are not going to propose rollbacks. Last month, WGA leaders accused the companies of taking that step during informal talks.

‘Respect for the process’

Iger and Katzenberg addressed the negotiators for about 15 minutes. They then met with reporters outside along with Meyer, who said, “We’re here today to show respect for the writers and respect for the process — a process that for the last 12 years has resulted in labor peace in Los Angeles, not labor conflict.”

The WGA film-TV contract expires May 2, while the contract for the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio & Television Artists runs out two months later. Despite the recent ramp-up of production activity, a walkout by writers and actors could delay the fall television season and seriously hurt movie production and scheduling

The WGA is seeking boosts in residuals for cable, foreign, the Fox Network and video, along with Internet jurisdiction and creative rights gains such as elimination of the possessory credit and guaranteed access for writers to sets. Studio execs have claimed the WGA economic proposals, if applied to all Hollywood unions, would cost up to $2.4 billion over three years, while the WGA estimates the cost for writers, directors and actors is $725 million.

Wells warned that WGA members rejected a proposed deal three years ago because it did not address key concerns. “We want to make a deal, but to ask our members to ratify a contract that does not address these important issues will doom it to failure again,” he said in his opening statement.

Wells also emphasized that a deal must include creative issues, despite the studios’ desire for WGA and the Directors Guild of America to resolve these issues separately. “It will, above all, have to be a deal that recognizes that the community of writers feels strongly that we are not being accorded the respect due to us given our contributions to the industry,” he added.

But the DGA continued to hammer the creative rights proposals. After saying it was “pleased” that talks had launched, the DGA warned Monday against any loss of directors’ powers.

“We will watch with great interest as the talks proceed,” the DGA said. “We are particularly concerned that no agreements be made that will detrimentally affect the filmmaking process and the role of the director.”

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