Scribes celebrate gains, cut losses

Instead of going on strike, Hollywood’s scribes have spent the past month dissecting the May 4 deal the Writers Guild of America made with studios.

Reviews are mixed to positive, with no public opposition emerging to formal ratification. The voting, announced June 5, sealed the deal with a solid 92% endorsement; 3,785 yes votes, 342 against. That’s a roughly 37% turnout of eligible voters.

The deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers provides for a $41 million pay hike and begins coverage retroactively to May 2 through May 1, 2004.

“This is not a ground-breaking deal by any means but it is a decent contract,” says Rene Balcer, co-creator and exec producer of NBC’s “Criminal Intent.”

And, he notes, it was negotiated against the backdrop of members feeling hesitant about striking.

Many writers insist, though, that they would have backed a strike had guild leaders called for one.

“We were ready to strike; I did not expect to work this summer,” says Elizabeth Cosin, a staff writer at “Law & Order: Criminal Intent. “Every writer I talk to says they would have gone out.”

Hollywood’s nerves were stretched to the breaking point during the last week of talks, which went three days past the expiration date of the previous contract. Negotiators had reached the point of exhaustion when the final deal was announced.

“There were times when we felt as if we were going to go on strike,” says negotiating team member Irma Kalish. “It was a roller coaster, particularly once we went into overtime. So once it was done, I felt as if I had been released from a hostage situation.”

WGA statisticians project the agreement will boost writer income by $90 million over six years. The pact includes these gains:

  • A 3.5% hike (adding up to $29 million) will occur in base salaries over the three years.

  • Fox network residuals will go from 66% of the rates paid by the big three nets to 80% in the first year, 90% in the second and 100% in the contract’s third.

  • Residuals for DVD sales include a $5,000 payment per movie in exchange for the right to include the screenplay as part of the DVD.

  • Foreign TV residuals were hiked by $1.2 million with an uncapped formula for shows meeting sales targets.

  • Residuals for movies-on-demand were set at 1.2%, four times the current payout rate for video revenues.

  • Residuals on works made for pay TV, such as HBO’s “The Sopranos,” were increased to $4 million from $300,000; residuals for basic cable product were hiked 20% to $850,000;

  • The companies agreed to Internet jurisdiction on material written directly for the Web.

    Charles Slocum, the WGA’s director of strategic planning, says the biggest wins came in Fox agreeing to full network status, uncapping foreign TV residuals and gains in Internet formats. “These are significant monetary gains and important precedents.”

Kalish agrees, asserting: “Some of what we had in mind was setting a negotiations floor for 2004.”

Just as important was what was not included, most notably the companies’ “double-burst” proposal to discount TV reruns in a two-week window. Kalish says the withdrawal of double-burst, which the WGA estimated would have cut residuals by $31 million, was key to clearing the way to a deal.

“When the double-burst proposal was taken off the table as part of a mutual withdrawal package by both sides, it was at that point that it seemed that we might have a deal,” she notes.

Where did the writers fall short? They dropped their demand for limits on the possessory credit for films and they walked away with no hike in video or network programs rerun on basic cable.

“We had to compromise on basic cable and video,” Slocum says. “Those were two things that the companies did not appear to be willing to give us.”

Video and DVD represented a large disappointment for members since the only advance was in the $5,000 screenplay publication fee.

“The studios were completely dug in on that issue and we were looking for something for screenwriters,” Kalish says.

Some writers were also disappointed that guild leaders did not put up a tougher front.

“The negotiating committee has to be commended for its performance under difficult circumstances, but at the same time, I question why the board did not seek a strike authorization vote,” Cosin says. “I think the board under-estimated the intestinal fortitude of the writers and their willingness to put up with a long strike. There’s a big pie out there and we deserve more of it.”

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