Writers bring counteroffer to talks

WGA to respond to AMPTP offer

Talks resume today after a four-day respite, and both writers and the AMPTP are anxious — but few are optimistic.

Exactly one month after the strike began, Writers Guild of America leaders are expected to deliver a counteroffer, with a focus on new-media issues, in response to the offer the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers presented Thursday.

WGA West president Patric Verrone, speaking at a picket line Monday at Paramount, underscored the guild’s displeasure with the AMPTP’s proposal for a fixed $250 annual residual on streaming video for one-hour network dramas — without any additional compensation for use — compared with the current $20,000 figure for TV reruns.

“We have to get a better proposal on the table,” he said.

Today marks the first session since Thursday’s talks adjourned amid a welter of accusations from both sides after the studios and nets offered a so-called New Economic Partnership that the WGA dismissed a few hours later as inadequate and insulting. Company execs went on the warpath over the next few days, privately characterizing the guild’s tactics as indicative that the union was not interested in making a deal.

But that anger is notably absent from the AMPTP letter that will go out today and is running as an ad in Daily Variety.

The AMPTP said its latest proposal isn’t a “take-it-or-leave-it offer.” The org continues, “It is designed to allow both sides to engage in the kind of substantive give-and-take negotiation that can lead to common ground. The WGA leadership asked for five days to respond. So with the ball in the WGA’s court, we look forward to what they have to say when we meet today.”

The tone is markedly different from the hardnosed stance the org used in many of its prior public letters. Notably absent is the finger-pointing that marked company execs’ reactions in previous missives. And the execs’ private frustration at the writers is substituted with a benign “We look forward to what they have to say.”

Clearly, company execs are eager to present a reasonable image given that the public is sympathizing with the writers.

The missive also took a conciliatory tone and stressed that the companies aren’t trying to destroy the WGA.

“This is not a zero-sum campaign where there is one winner and one loser,” it said. “We need the writers and the writers need us. And we need to work together if we are to navigate the rapids of this increasingly complex, high-tech economy.”

Verrone’s appearance at Par was part of his effort to visit every WGA picket line in Los Angeles. The guild had promised that every line would include members of the WGA negotiating committee or members of the WGA West board.

The guild also sent out an email from WGA West board member Tom Schulman predicting that the companies will continue to present a confusing picture to members. He urged members to stay united in the face of what he sees as efforts by the companies to “divide and conquer” the membership.

“They are putting us on an emotional roller coaster by raising and lowering our expectations, attacking our leaders, trying to pit the town against us, refusing to move on the issues that matter to us, bragging about their generosity when the opposite is true, fear mongering and claiming we’re going to ruin this industry — hoping we’ll splinter, lose faith in and attack each other, negotiate against ourselves and cave,” Schulman wrote.

Monday’s picketing also featured the usual presence of SAG members on the lines — not a surprise since the Screen Actors Guild has become one of the WGA’s biggest allies.

“I think our members totally get it — that the WGA is fighting for these issues now so we won’t have to go on strike next summer,” said Todd Amorde, SAG’s chief organizer. “They understand the importance of our getting fairly compensated for work on the Internet.”

Amorde, who was a key member in organizing SAG’s 2000 strike against the ad industry, was coordinating thesps picketing outside Par on Monday. He noted that more SAG members are showing up in the fifth week than in the first.

SAG reps have also attended most of the sessions at the WGA negotiations.

SAG’s contract expires June 30. It’s expected to begin the process of hammering out its demands early next year via member gatherings dubbed “W and W” for wages and working conditions.

In the meantime, the guild’s been able to persuade high-profile members to get out to the picket lines and up to the podiums — including Lisa Kudrow, Ray Romano, Sandra Oh, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Edie Falco, Kristin Davis, Tim Robbins, Gilbert Gottfried, Tina Fey, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Heaton, Sarah Silverman, Brad Garrett, Kathy Griffin, Alicia Keys and Dana Delany.

That ensures heightened visibility of strike issues and also sends the message to studios and nets that SAG won’t take a moderate stance at upcoming contract talks. SAG exec director Doug Allen’s mantra to members has been that the guild isn’t looking to strike, but if it’s not willing to do so, it’s engaged in collective begging.

Even before Allen arrived, SAG president Alan Rosenberg had promised to build stronger ties with the WGA and then did so over the issue of product integration.

Several SAG board members, such as Frances Fisher, have noted that the WGA’s taking the heat for what should have been SAG’s battle. They’re still perturbed over the 2004 decision by SAG’s national board, led by then-president Melissa Gilbert, to agree to a one-year extension of its deal — which delinked SAG’s expiration date from the WGA’s and placed it in sync with the DGA’s.

SAG board member Justine Bateman recently issued a widely distributed email asking actors to spend at least an hour a day on the lines.

“Ultimately, this is our strike,” she wrote. “If the WGA had not called this strike, we would all be participating in massive stockpiling. Then, in June, when our contract expires, the AMPTP would have offered us the no-gains-play-your-work-for-free-and-how-bout-some-rollbacks offer we’re now familiar with. And SAG would have to go on strike, but because of the stockpiling, we would have no leverage.”

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