With time running out to stop a writers strike, studios and networks have tried jumpstarting stalled contract talks with a streamlined proposal — and gotten slapped back by the WGA, whose toppers claim producers are not serious about making a deal.
“Minor adjustments to major rollbacks do not constitute forward motion,” said John Bowman, chair of the Writers Guild of America’s negotiating committee in a statement issued Thursday evening. “To make a deal, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers must engage with us on issues that matter in this negotiation. With that in mind, we will respond to their proposal tomorrow.”
The combative tone — typical of both sides during the three months of talks — is certain to deepen the town’s growing pessimism that a strike may come as early as next week.
AMPTP veepee Carol Lombardini admitted as much during her presentation to the WGA, in which she blistered the guild for its ongoing refusal to come off its original proposals. “It is no wonder that so many put the odds of us reaching agreement so low,” she said.
The companies, hoping to head off a work stoppage, had presented a detailed package at Thursday morning’s negotiating session at WGA West headquarters with the goal of brushing aside the less-than-vital issues and beginning the give-and-take of bargaining on nitty-gritty contract points.
But it was not all hearts and flowers as the AMPTP also flatly told the WGA to forget about any gain in the key area of DVD residuals — or any other residuals, for that matter.
“We will not accept increases in the DVD residual formula, in residual payments due for programs run on the CW or MyNetworkTV or in residual payments for programs made for the pay television market,” said Lombardini.
AMPTP prexy Nick Counter said the goal is to lay the groundwork and provide a framework for an agreement.
“The comprehensive proposal establishes the boundaries for a possible agreement, but it is flexible enough to allow both parties to come up with solutions as to the remaining issues,” he added. “The goal is to reach an agreement by Oct. 31.”
But Bowman blasted the revised package as bogus, contending that the moves are minimal.
“Our employers are growing and dominate the global entertainment industry,” he said. “Yet their opening offer would have rolled back our compensation by 50%. Now they decrease the rollbacks to 45% and proclaim that they are truly bargaining.”
Earlier in the day, Lombardini had taken the WGA to task for stubbornness in refusing to believe the companies’ explanations.
“Even when we have brought forward facts to demonstrate that a number of these proposals are not ‘rollbacks’ but are instead initiatives to remove obstacles that impede or preclude our ability to engage in commerce, when we have shown that the removal of those obstacles would result in revenues to us — and, therefore, a corresponding benefit to you by way of additional payments — you have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to our initiatives,” she said.
The new proposal doesn’t address WGA demands such as expansion of jurisdiction on new media, animation or reality, and it retains a key AMPTP proposal seeking to lift restrictions on promotional use of programming. In addition, the AMPTP is still asking for a four-year deal even though the WGA’s recent deals have been for three-year terms.
But it does grant the writers the right to consult on product-integration issues and removes part of the “separated rights” proposal that the WGA had asserted would limit the ability of writers to exploit their work on TV.
And it proposed that both sides take several proposals off the table as a quid pro quo — for example, the AMPTP would agree to the WGA’s increased pension and health contributions in exchange for imposing new AMPTP ceilings in those areas, and the guild would remove a demand that ringtones be covered by the merchandising language in exchange for the AMPTP dropping a proposal for eliminating payments for new characters in some limited circumstances.
The presentation of the new AMPTP proposal came after two days of huddling by execs to hammer out a strategy to avert a strike, which could start as early as next Thursday. Counter has repeatedly expressed frustration with the WGA over its refusal to budge from its initial package of 26 proposals, first presented three months ago when negotiations began.
Move is the AMPTP’s second in the past two weeks to salvage the negotiations. Counter took the companies’ controversial residuals revamp proposal — which would have tied payouts to writers to the studios’ recoupment of basic costs — off the table on Oct. 16, but WGA leaders were unimpressed and asserted that the AMPTP should never have made the proposal in the first place.
The guild has insisted previously that it would not discuss the other AMPTP proposals until they’re modified to take so-called rollbacks off the table — including the lack of coverage for new-media distribution such as Internet streaming of movies and TV segs and cell-phone mobisodes; the right to credit any amounts due a writer against other payments; elimination of the requirement that writing credits appear in publicity and advertising; and restrictions in the ability of writers to exploit TV rights and reacquire screenplays.
Thursday’s meeting was only the second since the WGA received 90% approval from members on its strike authorization vote. In the wake of that endorsement, WGA West president Patric Verrone declared that studios and nets need to take a serious look at the guild proposals — which seek to double DVD residuals, establish clear terms for new-media work and broaden WGA jurisdiction over new media, reality and animation production.
The WGA does not have to strike if a deal’s not reached by the end of the day Wednesday, when its contract expires. It can instruct its members to continue working under terms and conditions of the expired contract. That’s a tack the WGA followed three years ago, when it needed five months to reach a deal with the AMPTP following the expiration of its last minimum basic agreement.
However, the combination of combative rhetoric, the strike authorization vote and the recent issuance of hardline WGA strike rules has convinced much of Hollywood that the guild is going out as soon as possible.