Industry hopes to bring WGA, AMPTP to table

With the Directors Guild of America expected to announce as early as today a start date for negotiations, the backchannels have started buzzing again to revive the smoldering remains of the WGA talks.

A flurry of high-level huddles — involving some of the town’s top agents, showrunners and screenwriters — have been held in recent days to explore methods of luring leaders of the Writers Guild of America and of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers back to the table.

That’s a daunting task, given last week’s cratering of talks as the AMPTP insisted on the immediate removal of six WGA demands, followed by a brutal public war of words between the two sides.

Neither side commented publicly Wednesday on the backchannel efforts, which are focused on finding a way in which the WGA could give enough — such as promising to remove its proposals on reality jurisdiction, animation jurisdiction and sympathy strikes — to restart talks with a focus solely on new media.

In addition, a letter directed to WGA leaders has been circulating among top-level screenwriters in recent days with the message that while the scribes remain committed to the strike, they also believe the guild toppers need to narrow the thrust of their efforts at negotiations to hammering out terms for Internet pay.

As the week has progressed with nothing but dueling statements and finger-pointing between the WGA and AMPTP, the frustration level among some top showrunners is known to be growing. It’s understood that WGA West prexy Patric Verrone, WGA West exec director David Young and other guild leaders have heard from some key members since Friday’s blow-up asking them to reconsider the guild’s stance on reality and animation in order to tackle the meat-and-potatoes issues of new media.

At the same time, strong feeling remains among some members that the guild should try to restore its bid for improved DVD residuals, though that would seem a nonstarter in the current climate — particularly since it could lead the AMPTP to take back its concessions.

But the WGA may have talked itself into a corner as far as the conglom toppers are concerned. CEOs were livid over WGA East president Michael Winship’s repeated accusations of lying by the AMPTP and Verrone’s insistence at a Friday rally that reality would be in the next contract — even though the talks had relaunched based on the tacit understanding that negotiations would focus on new media.

As a result, the backchannel push has been focused on seeking a preview of just how far the congloms might be willing to concede on new media — presumably as a face-saving way for Verrone and Winship to announce the restart of talks.

Such efforts could be rendered moot if the DGA and AMPTP can agree to launch their own talks. But one management insider believes the WGA won’t back down because it would lose too much credibility in the eyes of its members.

“At the end of the day, studios realize they have to negotiate and deal with a variety of entities to get a system in place that will work,” an exec noted. “To get to that point, you will have to (a) focus on the core new-media issues, (b) have parties across the table who have actually given what they are looking for in new media some real thought, with some real ideas, and (c) have folks who are truly committed to working through what will be some exceedingly difficult negotiation sessions.”

WGA insiders are still angry over what they see as a deliberate effort to use brief discussions about jurisdiction as a pretext to end the talks in favor of starting negotiations with the DGA. One noted that last week, reality and animation combined were discussed for well under an hour — and only in the context of each side asking for clarification of the other side’s position.

The WGA has been trying to ensure continued support among showrunners by holding a series of small, informal meetings at private houses. And WGA members have been reluctant to offer public criticism of Verrone and Winship, and most continue to strongly support their leaders.

Writer-director Paul Haggis, posting on the United Hollywood site, issued a lengthy defense of the WGA tactics on Wednesday.

“In my 25-odd years in the guild, I have honestly never seen it more united,” he said. “That is our great strength, and we all know it. Now if we want to get a fair deal, we need to use it. We need to be smart enough to act dumb: Shut up and keep walking. We need to stop inspecting every move and wondering why our negotiators aren’t doing this or are doing that. They are doing a great job. We put our trust in them; we need to support them. If they tell us the best thing we can do is walk in circles, that is what I will be doing, every day. Until we win. And we will. See you on the sidewalk.”

In the meantime, the AMPTP continued its PR assault on the WGA via a trio of announcements, starting with a letter to its member companies that said it will keep putting out announcements.

“We believe that the best way to end this economic harm is for everyone to understand, in detail, the significant issues involved in this dispute,” the letter said. “That is why we will continue to explain our position at every opportunity and promptly refute, with facts, the mistaken assertions made by the WGA’s spokespeople.”

It then issued a statement as to why negotiations fell apart Friday evening, blaming the WGA’s jurisdictional demands, and released another “fact sheet,” this one comprised entirely of quotes from the media — print, audio and online — that have been covering the strike.

The AMPTP’s sweetened offer to WGA on Friday included increased minimums for network primetime and daytime serial script fees; a first-time proposal for residuals for ad-supported streaming of features with 1.2% of the applicable license fee paid to the producer; and terms on the AMPTP’s “promotional uses” proposal, which had provoked criticism from the WGA that it was designed to circumvent payment of residuals on streaming.

WGA pickets continued Wednesday with several hundred supporters at the Diversity Day at Paramount, including Kimberly Elise, Frances Fisher, Katherine Heigl, Orlando Jones, T.R. Knight, Rex Lee, Sara Ramirez, Tracee Ellis Ross and Isaiah Washington.

An NBC insider confirmed Wednesday that several WGA members disrupted Tuesday’s taping of NBC’s “Last Call With Carson Daly.” As Daly was interviewing a guest, two scribes stood up and began heckling the host, who is not a member of the WGA.

After the protesters were escorted from the studio, Daly restarted the interview, only to have more hecklers challenge him. They, too, were ejected from the audience. An exec from the production then asked any other protesters to leave, and an NBC insider said around five more people then exited. Production then resumed on the episode, as well as a subsequent seg.

(Josef Adalian and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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