Contract fight looming as Guild calls for order

DVD sales an issue for writers

You can count on writers to supply ample drama in the coming months.

Front and center will be a major confrontation at the bargaining table, with the Writers Guild of America’s three-year contract expiring May 2. Key demands will include increasing the DVD residual, boosting health and pension contributions, and seeking jurisdiction over reality TV and animation.

“These are really, really serious issues,” says negotiating committee member Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”). “And the committee is going in with extremely strong support from the members.”

The WGA’s pattern of demands received an unusually high 97% backing from the 2,410 members who voted. The endorsement is all the more impressive given the multiple distractions the guild has endured in recent months. Among them are:

  • The usually convivial WGA West elections turned confrontational. Victoria Riskin stepped down from the presidency after an investigator found her active membership had lapsed when she ran for office in the summer.

  • Riskin’s successor, Charles Holland, was then accused of misrepresenting his background, leading to a split 10-6 endorsement by the WGA West board and launch of a recall drive.

  • The guild is facing a federal probe into how it conducted the Riskin election.

  • The screenwriting credit determination process of the WGA West came under scrutiny as Michael Alan Eddy sued the guild, Warner Bros. and producers of “The Last Samurai” over the WGA’s failure to allow him a formal credit arbitration.

  • The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists undercut the WGA’s leverage at the bargaining table by launching negotiations Feb. 3, even though the actors guild contract won’t expire until June 30.

  • “Finding Nemo” received an Oscar screenwriting nomination after being ineligible for a WGA Award because the work wasn’t performed under a guild contract.

Veteran screenwriter Carl Gottlieb (“Jaws”), who was one of the six board members to vote against Holland, believes the importance of seeking a new contract will override these considerable distractions. “The Holland situation will be important, but it won’t have an impact on negotiations,” he declares.

Showbiz scribes expect the companies to make the usual complaint — that they’re barely solvent, thanks to squeezing by on DVD revenues. The studios were unbending in their resistance to changing the formula at the 2001 negotiations until the very end, when they agreed to pay a $5,000 one-time fee for the right to publish scripts on DVD.

“This negotiation is unique because we’re in the midst of unprecedented prosperity for the industry with an unprecedented unanimity among members,” says Stephen Schiff (“Unfaithful”), one of the two WGA East reps on the negotiating committee.

Schiff notes that DVD has becoming a key issue for TV scribes because of the rising popularity of hit series in the format.

The looming battle comes at a time of sizzling DVD sales for titles such as “Finding Nemo,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and “Seabiscuit” during the past Christmas season. Those results have fanned the fires of discontent among the scribes, who say they are stuck with small residuals because the payout is based on a formula unchanged since it was set in 1985.

“We were foolish to play nice guy in 1985 and give the new videocassette format a chance to succeed,” Schiff says. “It’s been a slap in our faces ever since.”

Former WGA West prexy Dan Petrie, tapped Jan. 27 to fill Holland’s vacated VP slot, echoes that assessment. “If you buy $300 worth of DVDs, the studios get $200 in profit and writers get $1. Our members are very conscious of this problem.”

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