Guild in discussions with signatory companies

In an effort to push the majors back to the bargaining table, the WGA’s moving forward on its pledge to seek interim deals with several indie producers.

WGA negotiating committee head John Bowman said Wednesday that the guild’s in discussions on interim pacts with a variety of smaller Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers signatory companies. He said the guild may have some news to announce on such deals as early as next week.

Bowman didn’t identify the companies but said terms are substantially the same as the guild had on the table when talks with the AMPTP imploded on Dec. 7 — including the WGA’s controversial proposal to expand jurisdiction to cover reality and animation scribes. “We’ll probably make some announcements next week or the week after,” he added.

The guild announced over the weekend that it would attempt to split the ranks of the majors by approaching individual AMPTP members for bargaining talks in the wake of the breakdown. Talks collapsed when the WGA spurned the AMPTP after the latter insisted that the guild drop six of its proposals, with the majors angered over the WGA’s continued interest in jurisdictional issues outside new media and the guild frustrated over the lack of movement by the AMPTP.

“There are a lot of individual companies who think the AMPTP’s position is ridiculous,” Bowman said. “There are a lot of companies that don’t understand why they’re being so intransigent.”

He indicated that the WGA’s only going to ink interim deals if it gets what he termed a “critical mass” large enough to put pressure on the majors. Otherwise, Bowman noted, the prospect of having only a handful of writers going back to work could have a negative impact on morale and solidarity among the membership.

Bowman spoke to reporters Wednesday morning on the steps of L.A. City Hall, where more than 150 striking WGA members turned out for a hearing before the City Council’s Housing, Community and Economic Development Committee on the economic impact of the 7-week-old strike.

“The thing about interim agreements is that (then) there are a few writers writing, and it tends to affect our solidarity. If you get a critical mass of people going to back to business, then it puts pressure on the other companies,” Bowman said. “If it’s just a small number, all it does is create dissention in our ranks. Our strength as a guild is our unity and solidarity. Anything that weakens that is something we’d be reluctant to do.”

Bowman also conceded that the real crux of strike settlement remains cutting deals with the seven majors that dominate the AMPTP. “Interim agreements are fine, but what we really want is to get back to the table” with the majors, he said. That’s what’s going to end this strike.”

The AMPTP had no comment, but industry insiders have reacted with skepticism to the notion that the WGA can include jurisdictional issues in the interim deals with indie producers, asserting that jurisdictional issues can only be addressed on an industrywide basis.

In interim deals, signatories generally agree to adhere to whatever the final terms of the basic agreement turn out to be. That said, if WGA makes such deals, the pacts will be closely scrutinized for specifics on new media, such as which formulas are employed.

The disclosure comes with five latenight talkers — “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Late Show With David Letterman,” “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” — set to return in early January, with or without interim deals. Rob Burnett, exec producer of Letterman’s show, said Wednesday that Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company will meet Friday with the guild.

“With the WGA now embracing a strategy of offering interim agreements to individual companies, it is inconceivable to us that there is any producing entity more deserving than Worldwide Pants, which has been and continues to be a staunch supporter of the Writers Guild and its positions,” Burnett said.

The WGA’s strategy presents challenges for all concerned since granting a deal to indies will ratchet up the pressure on rival shows controlled by networks to come back without the guild’s blessing. That could potentially cause fractures within the WGA rank and file, which has been strongly supportive of guild leaders so far.

The WGA granted similar interim deals during the 1988 strike after initially resisting, and it eventually signed interim contracts with more than 150 independent companies. The late Johnny Carson tried to negotiate an interim pact but was unsuccessful, and he returned to the air two months into the strike with his own monologue, without writers; Letterman followed more than a month later.

Networks avoided using producers with interim agreements, and the WGA eventually sued the AMPTP on antitrust grounds before the strike was settled after five months.

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