With contract battles resolved, guild envisions unified future

Leaders of the Writers Guild of America would easily agree that 2005 has to be less difficult than 2004.

The guild faced tough times last year, highlighted by frustrating contract negotiations with studios and networks. There were also internal political battles that saw two WGA West presidents resign, leading to a special election overseen by the Dept. of Labor, plus a lawsuit over how the guild administers credits.

“For me, 2004 was quite difficult,” admits WGA West prexy Daniel Petrie Jr., who replaced Charles Holland in March just before contract negotiations started. “I came into the job in less than ideal circumstances.”

“It’s great that 2004 is behind us,” echoes Warren Leight, VP of the WGA East Council.

The final deal, ratified in November, was endorsed by 74% of scribes voting. It included a $37 million gain in health plan contributions and $58 million in total increases. But provided for no gains in two areas in which the industry has racked up impressive growth — DVD residuals and reality TV — and no agreement on residuals for Internet download sales.

Leight points out that the $58 million over three years is less than half of Michael Ovitz’s severance package from Walt Disney Co. in 1996.

The deal placed WGA members under a contract for the first time in nearly seven months and proponents claimed the deal was the best the guild could get, even with a strike. Several members of the negotiating committee opined that the WGA wasn’t aggressive enough and didn’t make enough of an effort to coordinate its strategy with the Directors Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

Additionally, the WGA East and WGA West are battling over the long-running issue of which branch pays for services and the WGA West announced Feb. 10 it had asked for formal mediation of the dispute, claiming that it’s owed about $750,000 a year from WGA East members for services it provides. But Petrie and Leight agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be more coordination and less fractiousness next time around.

“Better relations start at home and we all are going to have become more cohesive,” Petrie notes.

“All the guilds are in a good position to begin talking about the future, especially with the increasing consolidation among media employers,” Leight adds. “We have to change the mindset of not working closely with SAG, the DGA and AFTRA and not get dragged by these Sharks vs. Jets kind of fights.”

More immediate is a need to gain jurisdiction in nonguild areas — reality and cable TV, and much of animation. “We’re making considerable progress even if we can’t announce anything yet without tipping our hand,” Petrie asserts.

With the contract expiration not until late 2007, another issue is likely to gain prominence: the guild’s determination of screen credits. Members have long complained that the process isn’t clear and is tilted toward more successful writers.. The guild spent most of 2004 defending itself against a lawsuit by screenwriter Michael Alan Eddy over its refusal to allow Eddy to participate in the credits arbitration for “The Last Samurai.” The suit was dismissed in October with a federal judge asserting the guild has wide discretion in credits administration.

Stephen Schiff, chair of the WGA East credits review committee, admits that members believe the process needs to be reformed. “Our goal is to have an equitable and transparent process that determines who actually wrote the screenplay. We have a long way to go.”

Key issues that the panel and its WGA West counterparts are likely to examine: the number of arbiters, how they are chosen, the percentage contribution requirements and the possibility of including noncredited writers in the end credits of a feature.

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