Union, producers to resume talks Sunday

In a last-ditch attempt to avert a strike, the Writers Guild of America will return to the negotiating table Sunday morning to meet with studios and networks.

News of the meeting emerged late Friday afternoon, a few hours after the WGA announced that its 12,000 members will go on strike Monday against studios and networks in the first major work stoppage in two decades.

The 10 a.m. Sunday meeting was called at the behest of federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez.

The strike officially begins at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on Monday. Members began receiving the official announcement at the same time that the WGA was holding a news conference at WGA West headquarters in Los Angeles. The missive said explicitly that all writing covered under guild agreements must cease when the strike starts.

Sunday’s talks will be the first since negotiations broke down Wednesday night, a few hours before the WGA contract expired.

WGA West president Patric Verrone opened the news conference by asserting the companies have ignored the Guild’s key issues — new media, Internet re-use, DVDs, jurisdiction — at a time when entertainment congloms are enjoying financial success.

“Rather than address our members’ primary concern, the studios made it clear that they would rather shut down the town than reach a fair and reasonable deal,” Verrone said. “This is not an action that anyone takes lightly. But it slowly became apparent that the studios are not prepared to deal fairly with writers and the rest of talent community.”

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, blasted back at the guild several hours later. “The WGA’s call for a strike is precipitous and irresponsible,” he said.

The WGA’s expected to mount multiple picket lines Monday. The guild’s email to members said, “We’ll be sending you information about our picket lines. Come out and show your solidarity. Your Contract Captain will be in touch with you. Be prepared to serve.”

The strike announcement followed unanimous approval in meetings of the WGA West board and the WGA East Council. Prospects for a strike became a near-certainty after negotiations collapsed on over the companies’ insistence that they won’t boost residuals for DVDs or Internet downloads.

WGA leaders had left the door open for talks to avert a strike. Negotiating committee chief John Bowman stressed that guild leaders want to negotiate with the companies this weekend — as long as the companies will back off their insistence that residuals for DVDs and Internet downloads cannot be increased.

“We have 48 hours,” Bowman said. “We don’t want to strike. What we really want to do is negotiate.”

In comments after the news conference, Bowman expressed frustration that the AMPTP had not discussed new media issues since negotations began in July. He also said guild negotiators were blind-sided Wednesday by the AMPTP’s insistence that the home vid formula had to be extended to electronic sell-through.

“If that was going to be their position, then that should have been their proposal in July,” Bowman added.

Counter was particularly combative about the WGA in his latest comments, attempting to portray the guild as greedy buy asserting that writers are already well paid as it is. The WGA’s seeking to double DVD residuals, which currently pay out at about a nickel per DVD sold.

“The writer is one of our most highly regarded assets and one of our most highly rewarded,” he noted. “Working writers on average earn over $200,000 a year. All they have to do is earn $31,000 to qualify for a full year of coverage in the finest health care plan in the country. And they are among the few employees in the world who get an “additional annuity” in the form of residuals beyond their initial compensation.”

Counter then noted that WGA West writers made in excess of $56 million in additional compensation last year from DVD residuals.

“It makes absolutely no sense to increase the burden of this additional compensation,” he added. “Their DVD proposal would more than double the cost to producers.”

Counter reiterated his previous contention that a deal’s possible – but only if the WGA relents on DVD and Internet residuals.,

“Instead of working toward solutions that would give the industry the flexibility it needs to meet today’s business challenges, the WGA leadership continues to pursue numerous unreasonable proposals that would result in astronomical and unjustified increases in our costs, further restrict our ability to produce, promote and market TV series and films, and prohibit us from experimenting with programming and business models in New Media,” he said.

Bowman also acknowledged rumors that the likelihood of a WGA strike has raised the likelihood that the Directors Guild of America will make a deal soon with the AMPTP. He said that even if the DGA did come to a deal with AMPTP on Internet, the writers will not back down.

“The DGA can’t make this deal for us,” he added. “We won’t accept a bad deal.”

Bowman also noted that directors are less dependent on residuals than writers.

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