WGA, producers at odds

The Writers Guild of America is going to make Hollywood worry about a strike for the next year.

In a move underlining the souring relationship between the WGA and industry toppers, the guild’s leaders have spurned an industry proposal to launch negotiations in January. Instead, they’ve insisted they won’t be ready to start until September — less than two months before the Oct. 31 expiration of the current contract.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. “It’s in the best interests of all concerned to get this resolved as soon as possible.”

On the film side, the delay means an acceleration of production and stockpiling of scripts, followed by a “de facto strike” next summer as studios stop launching film production once they can no longer be wrapped by Oct. 31. In TV, the prospect of a work stoppage means studios and networks will try to shoot more episodes of scripted series and will be less inclined to launch series while planning for more reality, news and sports programming.

Counter went public Monday with his frustration over the guild’s refusal to start talks sooner. That prompted a statement by WGA West exec director David Young.

“The WGA will be prepared to commence negotiations in the summer of 2007, well in advance of the November contract expiration,” he said. “We are currently meeting with our members on contract issues, as well as continuing our dialogue with sister guilds in Hollywood. The WGA has always worked with the companies to make sure that all writers are covered by a guild agreement with proper compensation and residuals for their work. We fully expect that a fair agreement will be reached in our upcoming negotiation,” Young said.

Counter said his disappointment with the WGA stems partly from the mixed signals sent by Young in recent weeks as to scheduling the negotiations.

The AMPTP, the bargaining arm for studios and nets, had asked Young to start bargaining as soon as possible, according to Counter. Young responded in October with a letter to Counter proposing that negotiations start in January; Counter proposed to Young that the second and fourth weeks of that month be set aside for bargaining.

But Young notified Counter on Nov. 17 that the WGA West board had decided at a recent meeting it was not prepared to start negotiations until September.

Counter said Young wouldn’t explain the board’s reasons for the delay. And when he pressed Young on whether it would be possible to go earlier, Young said it was possible but did not elaborate.

Some execs attributed the WGA’s move to simple gamesmanship, designed to show studios and networks that the scribes are serious about getting a bigger slice of the pie.

“It’s like a batter stepping out of the box with the bases loaded, just to rattle the pitcher,” one top agent said.

Other speculation for the delay centered on the WGA betting that the extra time will clarify the now-murky outlook on which digital delivery platform will become dominant in coming years.

But for now, pushing back the start of negotiations represents one more big step in convincing studios and networks that a strike is coming, according to “Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf.

“The guild seems determined to ratchet up the likelihood of a strike,” he told Daily Variety. “It’s a Neolithic tactic, but it’s a clear message that they want to have a work stoppage. I don’t have to be the Delphic oracle to have seen this coming.”

But Wolf asserted that both sides appear to have forgotten the economic damage inflicted during the 1988 writers strike, which lasted five months.

“Network viewership has declined every year since then,” Wolf said. “Everyone loses during a strike. They should be negotiating now.”

Wolf said he won’t lose personally in a strike since his shows are already syndicated. He added WGA leaders appear to be overestimating the potential revenues from downloads of TV shows.

“I’m telling everyone who will listen, this isn’t the 1950s when TV was growing,” Wolf said. “A strike is like shooting arrows into a stumbling animal.”

WGA leaders have been attempting to quell doom-and-gloom predictions of a strike for the past year. “A strike is a possibility — no more and no less,” WGA West prexy Patric Verrone said earlier this year. “The industry should be doing everything in its power to prevent it by accommodating the talent community and its demands.”

Counter said Monday the key issues at the contract talks probably will include producer contributions to pension and health plans and sorting out how much writers should be paid for digital downloads and their work on new-media platforms.

“Everyone is struggling with the new-media issue — keeping series on the air and both building and retaining audiences,” Counter said. “New delivery systems are vital to both. The world’s changing, and the sooner we get to the bargaining table, the better.”

Counter often has engaged in pre-negotiations posturing to paint the WGA as overly aggressive and unrealistic. But he’s been particularly perturbed by the conduct of Verrone and Young with regard to the campaign to seek increased revs from product placement for writers on TV shows; the guild’s attempts to organize reality TV writers; its sponsorship of lawsuits by reality-show writers alleging wage and overtime violations; and its denunciations of ABC Disney’s decision to pay iPod residuals at the lower homevideo rate.

Young assumed the top WGA West slot on an interim basis in September 2005, after the board fired John McLean. That move came after Verrone’s slate swept to an overwhelming victory following a campaign promising the guild would beef up organizing efforts to the tune of 30% of its budget.

Meanwhile, Hollywood’s got another headache in the form of the Screen Actors Guild, where control of the boardroom shifted last fall to a more assertive faction. A writers strike might push SAG into hard-line bargaining followed by a work stoppage when the current film-TV contract expires in June 2008.

SAG president Alan Rosenberg declined to comment Monday about the WGA negotiations.

The issue of when to negotiate is a divisive one among Hollywood unions. The DGA and IATSE wrap up deals at least six months prior to expiration, while the WGA’s current contract was negotiated five months after the previous contract had expired.

Advocates of early talks contend that employers are willing to make a better deal because it’s easier to achieve objectives without a looming deadline and unions can obtain a premium in exchange for labor peace. Opponents believe going early undermines a union’s negotiating position by removing the strike threat.

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