Strike in limbo as contract expires

Writers meet to discuss deadline, DVD issue

WGA negotiations have unraveled over the DVD issue — seriously ratcheting up the chances of a strike.

Talks hit the wall early Wednesday evening as companies demanded that the Writers Guild of America drop its demand to increase homevid residuals. Guild negotiators responded by saying they weren’t prepared to continue and gave no indication when or if they’d return.

With the guild contract expiring at 12:01 a.m. today, WGA leaders can order their 12,000 members to strike at any time — possibly as early as tonight’s membership meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

In an ominous sign, WGA strike captains have been told to instruct guild members to take their personal items home from offices at the end of work today.

The negotiating session ended as many others have, with both sides issuing statements blaming each other for being stubborn and unprofessional.

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, said the companies believe they can make a deal by moving on other issues but insisted that increasing the DVD formula is a nonstarter.

“The companies believe that movement is possible on other issues, but they cannot make any movement when confronted with your continuing efforts to increase the DVD formula, including the formula for electronic sell-through,” he said. “The magnitude of that proposal alone is blocking us from making any further progress. We cannot move further as long as that issue remains on the table.”

The WGA shot back, accusing the companies of being nonresponsive to its move earlier in the day toward a compromise with a package of proposals that included movement on DVDs, new media and jurisdictional issues, though it declined to provide details. It asserted that it had also taken nine proposals off the table.

“The companies returned six hours later and said they would not respond to our package until we capitulated to their Internet demand,” the WGA said. “After three and a half months of bargaining, the AMPTP still has not responded to a single one of our important proposals. Every issue that matters to writers, including Internet reuse, original writing for new media, DVDs and jurisdiction, has been ignored. This is completely unacceptable.”

In a troubling development, Counter warned that without the guild backing down from its DVD stance, negotiations would be at an impasse.

The DVD dispute centers on the 1985 formula, under which homevid residuals were paid on the basis of 20% of wholesale revenues — equating to scribes receiving about 4¢ for each disc sold. The WGA’s seeking a doubling of that rate, asserting it agreed to a discounted deal two decades ago to help the fledgling business survive.

Studios and nets have steadfastly nixed any boost to DVD residuals, contending the revenues are crucial to moving film and TV projects out of deficit amid sharply rising costs.

The WGA’s also seeking to hike electronic sell-through revenue from1.2% of the licensing fee for each downloaded item to 2.5%.

Counter stressed that the negotiations aren’t dead.

“We are ready and willing to proceed to reach agreement with you,” he added. “We call upon you to take the necessary steps now to break this impasse so that bargaining can continue for our mutual benefit and the good of everyone else who works in this industry.”

The Wednesday session was the the second day under the auspices of a federal mediator. Most observers believe the more likely scenario would be for the WGA to wait until next week to strike, after it has logged a few more days of negotiations — in order to demonstrate that it’s made every effort to find a settlement.

In a sign of heightened tensions, more than 100 showrunners have placed an advertisement — titled “Pencils Down Means Pencils Down” — in today’s Daily Variety asserting that they will stop writing in the event of a strike. The scribes also pledged that they will not ask their staffs to write or break stories.

And if the WGA strikes, it’s not going to have a lot of company from its union brothers and sisters. The other major Hollywood unions — SAG, the DGA, AFTRA and IATSE — have reminded members of the “no-strike” provisions of their contracts and noted that they must live up to any agreement they’ve made to work.

Leo Reed, secretary-treasurer of Local 399 of the Teamsters union, has offered the only significant support to the WGA so far, telling members that they should not cross WGA picket lines — as long as they’re acting as individuals. The Teamsters represent a formidable constituency that could seriously impact production should significant numbers of its membership (more than 4,000 drivers, location managers and casting directors) heed Reed’s suggestion.

“If you are going on strike, you really need the support of your fellow unions,” said labor attorney Michael Asensio of the Baker Hostetler law firm. “I think the WGA is woefully short of that at this point.”

Of those four unions, SAG is the only one to offer even a modicum of support for the WGA by encouraging thesps last week to join WGA pickets — as long as they do it in their free time.

IATSE president Thomas C. Short sent an open letter Wednesday to members and locals, noting that the below-the-line union has more than 50,000 members working in film and TV production. And Short’s missive warned that members honoring WGA picket lines could be fired.

“Any work stoppage may have a profound and long-lasting impact on you and your families,” Short added. “The IATSE contracts contain provisions that require us to continue to honor our contracts. These ‘no-strike’ provisions require the IATSE to notify our members of their obligation to honor these contracts and continue working. Any individual member who chooses to honor any picket line is subject to permanent replacement.”

Short has already locked horns with the WGA over its strike rules, threatening to sue the guild after it announced plans to bar WGA members from penning animated features if there’s a strike — since the IATSE covers most animated feature writing.

That threat has apparently led the WGA to soften the language in the strike rules, which had previously warned members not to negotiate or enter into any contract for any animated feature. The revised rules still carry a ban against writing for struck companies but only “encourage” members to refrain from writing for the other companies.

The altered language now reads: “With respect to all other companies, members are encouraged during the strike to refrain from negotiating or entering into a contract for the performance of writing services in connection with fully animated theatrical features, though this request is not enforceable through Guild discipline.”

AFTRA instructed its 70,000 members this week that they may not perform duties covered by WGA contracts that have been performed by WGA members. The union also reminded members of the no-strike clauses in AFTRA contracts and offered only the most tepid support to the WGA.

“AFTRA members are also reminded that so long as your activities are consistent with the terms of the no-strike language of the AFTRA contract and/or your personal service contract, you may expresss your support, as an individual through non-work releated activities during non-work times to fellow union members of the WGA in their effort to achieve a fair contract.”

As for the DGA, it has disputed the WGA’s strike rules covering showrunners, asserting that the writer-directors must perform a variety of tasks — such as cutting for time, bridging material and changes in stage direction — that the WGA deemed off limits. The DGA’s warned its hyphenate members that failure to perform those tasks will leave those members in breach.

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