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WGA tries to soothe nerves

Org resists work stoppage, will resume talks next week

This article was updated at 7:43 p.m.

With the monthlong news blackout lifted for a week, the Writers Guild of America has gone on a charm offensive and sought to reassure showbiz that it’s not looking to go on strike.

“We want to keep the town working,” said WGA West president Daniel Petrie Jr. in a letter to members issued Thursday, a day after negotiations recessed. “We do not think a strike at this time is in our interest, nor is it in the interest of the industry as a whole.”

The current scenario calls for negotiations to relaunch next week. The WGA spurned a three-year proposal from the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers due to a lack of expanded jurisdiction, no gains in residuals for DVD and video-on-demand and what was deemed unacceptably low hikes in health care contributions.

The WGA has proposed a one-year deal that would expire at about the same time as the June 30, 2005, expirations for the DGA, SAG and AFTRA contracts.

“It is equally not in our interest to take a bad three-year deal; indeed, it’s not in the interest of the entire creative community,” Petrie said. “The DGA and SAG have their negotiations next year, and many of the same issues will be on the table. Our accepting such a deal not only would hurt us, it would undercut our sister guilds. We have no desire to do either.”

The AMPTP’s Nick Counter has asserted that his org — which serves as the bargaining arm for studios and nets — has made a fair three-year offer with significant hikes in several areas, including health and made-for-pay TV. And though it hasn’t rejected the WGA’s one-year offer, Counter expressed a clear preference for a three-year term because of the need for studios and nets to have long-term stability in planning features and series.

Petrie also told members in the letter that the economic terms of the contract, which expired last weekend, remain in effect. But he also warned of the possibility of a strike or lockout now that the contract has expired.

“This means that we could call a strike at any time (the membership would have to vote on that, of course),” he said. “It also means that the companies can lock us out at any time, and we need to be aware that that’s a risk we’re running. But just as we don’t think it’s in our interest to strike, we don’t think it’s in the companies’ interest to lock us out.”

The WGA has not yet scheduled a strike authorization vote. Guild last struck in 1988, when it stayed out for five months, delaying the start of the fall TV season and creating economic losses estimated at $500 million.

Petrie said that once negotiations start again Wednesday, the news blackout will resume. And he insisted that the guild is not stalling and remains ready to bargain once it consults with its members.

“We are prepared to negotiate until the cows come home, if necessary,” he said, adding that WGA West exec director John McLean has counseled patience and discipline. “As we continue down this unmapped road, that’s excellent advice for all of us.”

Petrie’s letter also included the specific invitation to the 8,000 WGA West members for Monday’s meeting at the Sheraton Universal.

The WGA and Counter have clashed on how much info the AMPTP is obligated to provide to back up its assertions of declining profitability of films.

Counter has asserted his org has provided extensive documentation and stressed that the WGA has a thorough knowledge of revenue flows due to its access to info about member residuals. But McLean, in a statement to the companies before negotiations broke off, disputed that.

“We asked to share in the DVD bonanza we helped create for you, and you won’t even talk about it, except to say that only 16 movies made between 1996 and 2000 managed to “break even” on homevideo,” he said.

McLean also criticized the AMPTP for refusing to discuss jurisdiction over reality shows and its offer of an increase of $5 a week in made-for-pay TV residuals starting in the second year. “It is clear from your last offer that management is not serious about reaching an acceptable three-year agreement,” he said.

The AMPTP has insisted that reality shows aren’t scripted and shouldn’t be covered. The WGA has asserted that the writers crafting the outlines for those shows ought to be under its contract.

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