WGA talks to go on under expired contract
This article was updated at 9:17 p.m.
The cliffhanger drama over a new writers’ contract will remain unresolved for at least three more weeks.
Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers announced Wednesday they would resume negotiations in full session on June 1. Until then, talks will continue in committees, caucuses and sidebars, the guild and the AMPTP said.
“Both sides have agreed to keep the news blackout in place,” the announcement also said.
Announcement, made six hours after negotiations had relaunched following a weeklong recess, means both sides have spurned going to war with each other. Instead, they’ve opted for the current stalemate of trying to work out a deal, while scribes continue to work under terms of the expired contract.
Sources close to the talks stress these key points — studios and nets don’t want the potential PR black eye of locking out writers even though they could do so since the contract expired May 2; the WGA’s leaders are reluctant to take the inflammatory step of scheduling a strike authorization vote.
Both sides have entered uncharted territory by being willing to operate under an expired contract for another three weeks at the minimum. Three years ago, negotiations went three days past expiration before the WGA and AMPTP worked out a deal; in 1988, the WGA went a week past expiration before launching a five-month strike.
Observers reacted with cautious optimism Thursday to the latest development, pointing out that it reflects efforts by both sides to keep the rhetoric less contentious than in 2001.
For now, the WGA stalemate also won’t affect the nets, where execs are feverishly planning their fall schedules. Networks plan to unveil their lineups in New York next week as planned and will likely avoid spelling out their strike contingency plans.
Pressure will grow
However, with fall season production ramping up in July, the WGA and the AMPTP will be under increasing pressure in June to reach a deal.
Wednesday’s decision to tack on three more weeks to the negotiating process did not surprise observers, since both sides were so far apart on their positions, even on the issue of the length of the deal. Studio and network execs are adamantly against the WGA’s stripped-down one-year proposal; the WGA has already rejected the AMPTP’s three-year deal.
The prospect of a one-year deal is highly problematic for studios and nets — it would set a precedent of making such deals routinely, and it would give Hollywood’s unions additional clout, since the next WGA contract would expire close to the June 30, 2005, expirations for the DGA, SAG and AFTRA.
The WGA had asked for the one-week break to consult with its 12,000 members about its stripped-down one-year proposal and the AMPTP’s three-year offer, which has been rejected.
The AMPTP’s Nick Counter has kept his usual low profile, other than strongly favoring a three-year term due to what he has said is the need for stability and asserting that he’s prepared to negotiate a “reasonable” package. Execs have asserted at negotiations that studios and nets are being hammered on the bottom line due to soaring filmmaking costs and declining TV revenues in the syndie and foreign markets.
Before talks restarted Wednesday and the news blackout was reimposed, the WGA West posted an overview of the talks on its Web site, Wgawest.org. In the posting, the guild listed the status of its key issues and said the AMPTP has turned it down on all fronts:
- Employer’s health-fund contributions should be boosted by $43 million over three years; the AMPTP has proposed $10.6 million.
- Video-on-demand sales’ residuals for movies sold via the Internet should match the current 1.2% rate for rentals.
- DVD and videos’ 20% revenue base for residuals should be doubled.
- WGA should receive jurisdiction on reality and nonfiction TV and animation should be expanded.
- Writers should be guaranteed to be paid for no less than two drafts on original screenplays.
- There should be network minimums and a move toward network residuals for the WB and UPN.
- A mechanism should be put in place to judge fairness of license fees when self-dealing.
- Made-for-pay residuals should be increased to those comparable with the DGA.
The WGA also said the AMPTP has proposed rollbacks on foreign TV residuals, daytime head writer pension limits, late payment interest and salary in primetime comedy-variety.