WGA talks hit bitter end

Next steps may lie with the DGA

After Friday night’s messy collapse of contract talks, showbiz workers spent the weekend wondering where everyone goes next: Will the DGA step in?; how would that affect the resumption of writers huddles?; and just how long will this strike go?

The naked hostility engendered by the scribes strike and the cratering of the negotiations — with CEOs now waging a scorched-earth campaign against scribe leaders — adds a heavy dose of unpredictability to everything, including the outlook for the helmer huddles.

No date’s been set for the DGA and the AMPTP to begin talks, but early next month is viewed as the most likely start.

Odds are extremely long the WGA will be back at the bargaining table any time soon in the aftermath of last week’s negotiations going down in flames. Although much of the town’s been braced for a writers strike that could run well into next year, that outcome now seems a certainty.

However, WGA president Patric M. Verrone Sunday, responding to a below-the-line workers rally, said, “we remain ready and willing to return to negotiations.”

The rally was in Hollywood, with workers asking for an end to the strike, which is in its second month.

After the WGA went on strike, the DGA had originally been set to begin negotiations at the end of November but those plans were put on hold when the WGA and AMPTP agreed to re-start their negotiations two weeks ago.

The DGA has maintained its usual close-to-the-vest approach amid the ongoing PR war between the majors and the WGA. The DGA’s only public comment is that it was “disappointed” over Friday’s breakdown of the WGA negotiations.

With the DGA’s reputation for pragmatism and making deals with a minimum of hubbub, the majors may be able to persuade the helmers to hammer out a contract that would create a formula for thorny issues such as payment for the Internet and other digital media. But it’s far from certain whether the writers and actors guilds would adhere to any formula OK’d by the directors.

Lawyer Ken Ziffren is expected to be involved in the talks. One topper noted that Ziffren — despite his rep as being one of the most hardnosed dealmakers in Hollywood — has the trust of the studios.

“We’ve all done 1,000 deals with Ken,” one top exec said.

Another exec took pains to note that he sees DGA exec director Jay Roth and negotiating committee chief Gil Cates as being expert in the nuances of the business.

“I’m not saying we’d agree on a lot of issues, but at least we’d know what the dialogue was,” he added. “Cates and Roth are part of this business.”

That’s a veiled reference to the fact that many AMPTP members believe the WGA is being controlled by non-Hollywood insiders who don’t understand the way the business has traditionally been run. AMPTP insiders said they’re convinced WGA West exec director David Young is trying to make the WGA battles a part of a larger, more global struggle against corporate “greed.”

Should the DGA make a deal soon, such a move would probably be viewed by the WGA as undermining the efforts of writers to establish a beachhead in new-media compensation. About 300 writer-directors — among the 1,400 dual card members — recently urged the DGA to delay starting talks with the AMPTP.

It’s possible that a DGA deal might serve as a template for the AMPTP and the WGA to try again at negotiations, although the relationship between the writers and companies has taken on a toxic tone. The WGA believes the majors have been looking for any excuse to walk away from the table so that they can make a deal with the DGA; the majors are blaming the guild for being more interested in putting on a strike rather than making a deal.

The majors were angered over the WGA’s refusal to drop the jurisdictional and strike clause demands.

“We told them we’d negotiate new media 24/7, every day through the holidays, at 3 a.m. on a Saturday. … But we told them, the strike could last for 10 years, and you’re never going to get reality. You’re never going to get animation.”

Shortly after 6 p.m. Friday, AMPTP topper Nick Counter demanded of WGA’s Young, in a hallway exchange, that the writers withdraw six proposals before talks could resume: the guild proposal for Internet compensation; jurisdiction over reality; jurisdiction over animation; the WGA’s demand for part of the ad revenue from Internet streaming; removal of the ban on members honoring strikes by other labor unions; and the WGA’s proposal to use third parties instead of the marketplace to determine the value of a transaction.

When Young would not accede to Counter’s demand, Counter said the talks were over, and left.

Industry sources say that four members of the WGA negotiating committee were present — “Law and Order: SVU” exec producer Neal Baer; “CSI” exec producer Carol Mendelsohn; screenwriters Ed Solomon and Bill Condon.

WGA sources said that the AMPTP tactics were duplicitous, since the WGA was in the midst of preparing a counterproposal.

One WGA insider said the committee had heard rumors that studios were leading up to a big challenge-type offer, so they waited for several hours and then received an offer that included the previous deal on streaming for TV and a change on theatrical streaming. The WGA members went off to study it and prepare their counteroffer when Counter came looking for Young, who refused to immediately concede.

Moments later, AMPTP VP Carol Lombardini delivered remarks detailing how the talks could no longer continue without removal of the six WGA demands. WGA reps were stunned at how hardline the stance was, and got angry when they saw the AMPTP statement on its website a short time later — giving them the impression that last week’s talks had been only for show. The fact that the AMPTP recently hired crisis PR experts Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane reinforced WGA’s anger and conviction that the studios have been prepping for war, rather than negotiations, for the past two weeks.

Both sides expressed bitterness that the pledges that brought them back to the table two weeks ago — following extensive back-channel efforts by showrunners and CAA partner Bryan Lourd — had been violated.

“The back channel conversations had assured us that all the peripheral issues were off the table, which is why Nick kept saying that we needed have the expectations that we could make a deal,” another exec said.

WGA negotiating committee members were just as upset. “What was so galling about Friday was that it made clear how disingenuous they were being,” one said. “They never intended to negotiate. They told us if we took DVDs off the table we’d get a deal on new media. But they were lying.”

WGA negotiating committee chief John Bowman expressed frustration over the AMPTP’s conduct and what he characterized as an ultimatum to drop all six demands.

“The AMPTP insists we let them do to the Internet what they did to homevideo,” he said. “We received a similar ultimatum through back channels prior to the discussions of Nov. 4. At that time, we were assured that if we took DVDs off the table, we would get a fair offer on new media issues. That offer never materialized.”

The AMPTP’s also seeking to put the blame on Young, who’s headed the Western branch for the past two years and brought in a more confrontational style to the scribes union. In its announcement about the breakdown, it blistered Young.

“Quite frankly, we’re puzzled and disheartened by an ongoing WGA negotiating strategy that seems designed to delay or derail talks rather than facilitate an end to this strike,” the AMPTP said. “Union negotiators in our industry have successfully concluded 306 major agreements with the AMPTP since its inception in 1982. The WGA organizers sitting across the table from us have never concluded even one industry accord.”

The AMPTP again also touted its New Economic Partnership proposal as a way increase the average working writer’s salary to more than $230,000 a year — though that figure excludes WGA members who are unemployed, making the actual average figure about $62,000 from film and TV for the 10,500 members.

“While the WGA’s organizers can clearly stage rallies, concerts and mock exorcisms, we have serious concerns about whether they’re capable of reaching reasonable compromises that are in the best interests of our entire industry. It is now absolutely clear that the WGA’s organizers are determined to advance their own political ideologies and personal agendas at the expense of working writers and every other working person who depends on our industry for their livelihoods.”

Bowman told Daily Variety he wasn’t surprised at the AMPTP’s departure from negotiations. “They had drumrolled this all week,” he added. “We wound up being engaged in fake negotiations. I suspect they’re trying to do this so that writers will suffer during the holiday season.”

“For them, this is not a writers strike. It’s about changing society,” one exec said. “We are so frustrated. We’re dealing with people who don’t care about this community. They care about making social change in America.”

“David Young is treating the writers like they’re coal miners working for the DuPont corporation,” the exec continued. “But all of us (in the AMPTP) are from this community. We grew up in showbusiness. We all have closer relationships with the showrunners than they do,” an executive said.

Execs now seem to be hoping that some key scribes — particularly showrunners — will break ranks from the Guild.

Despite published speculation hinting that the studios were starting to break ranks from one another, the exec said just the opposite has taken place.

“We were joking that the WGA hasn’t even given us anything to argue about,” the exec said. “The companies have never been more unified.”

(Cynthia Littleton and Josef Adalian contributed to this report)

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