While WGA votes, writers to resume producing

After 14 weeks of warfare, labor peace has come to Hollywood.

TV showrunners head back to the office today, and the scribe tribe officially resumes work Wednesday. As word of the tentative agreement began spreading Saturday morning, the town breathed a collective sigh of relief and started making plans to resume production.

The strike’s end also means the Feb. 24 Oscars can proceed without fear of picketing and with scriptwriters for the kudocast.

WGA West prexy Patric Verrone told guild members Sunday to put away their picket signs: The ruling boards of the Writers Guild of America unanimously blessed a three-year tentative deal with the majors.

The next step is to get approval by members on lifting the strike. Members will vote by fax or in person at specified meetings; the vote concludes Tuesday night.

After that, the members will be asked in a separate vote whether to OK the new three-year deal; those ballots go out in the next few days, with a 10- to 12-day return period.

Given the strong support shown for Verrone and other guild leaders in Saturday’s member meetings — despite some reservations about the deal — everyone assumes that members will vote to end the strike.

At a midday news conference Sunday, a beaming Verrone touted the deal as the best that the WGA’s reached in the last three decades.

He also said it was arguably “the most important strike of this young century.”

Verrone added, “It is not all that we hoped for, and it is not all we deserve, but as I’ve been saying since this strike began, this strike was about the future, and this deal assures for us and for future generations of writers a share in the future.”

Verrone gave the expected thank yous to members, other unions, David Letterman and Tom Cruise (for signing interim deals) and even fans of TV shows. And he took care to praise News Corp. president Peter Chernin, Disney topper Robert Iger and CBS honcho Leslie Moonves for their efforts in hammering out a deal.

Verrone noted that the involvement of CEOs in recent weeks had enabled both sides to move toward an agreement, in contrast with the unproductive negotiations last year.

“We spent about three months getting nowhere,” he added.

Notably absent from the list of those thanked was the Directors Guild of America.

WGA leaders made little mention of the helmers other than to say that the WGA had improved on the DGA deal, particularly in terms of gaining a percentage of distributor’s gross on the third year.

Sunday’s announcement came on the heels of an upbeat member meeting at the Shrine Auditorium, featuring standing ovations foir guild leaders. TV scribe Mike Scully enthused, “I’ve never been more proud to be a member of this guild. I’ve never felt more like I was a member of a real union. Anyone who would say, ‘Well, we didn’t get everything we asked for’ doesn’t know what a labor negotiation is. This is a very good deal for us.”

There was virtually no dissent or harsh criticism of the deal terms raised during Saturday’s powwow, numerous attendees said. Verrone and WGA West exec director David Young were forthright in talking the crowd through each of the major deal points, copies of which were distributed to the crowd. The duo discussed where they scored victories and where they made concessions — and why.

One of the deal’s most troubling elements for many members concerns Web streaming, where the majors have a 17-day window (or 24 days for first-year programs) of free usage before residual fees kick in.

On the upside, a little-noticed provision of the pact gives scribes 2% of distributor’s gross on library product going back to 1977 from the first year of the contract and with no promotional window. Library product is defined as programs streamed more than a year after their initial telecast; streaming of such library product is expected to be a growth area for the majors as they push digital bizes such as the NBC-Universal-News Corp. joint vid venture Hulu.com.

Young explained to members that the congloms refused to budge on the timeframe out of concern over declining TV ratings and the need to aggregate auds any way they can for pricey primetime shows. A number of attendees said Young’s analysis and explanation went a long way toward assuaging their angst about the window.

David Fury, exec producer of Fox’s “24,” described the feeling inside the Shrine as “euphoric.”

“We gained a lot, and it lays the groundwork for three years from now,” when the WGA’s next pact will be negotiated, Fury said. “No one’s walking around saying we got everything we wanted, but we showed them that our union is strong, and maybe they’ll think twice the next time about trying to scare us” with unfavorable deal terms, he added.

Many members have said they were galvanized by the AMPTP’s July move to propose a major revamp of the film and TV residuals system. “They were offering us nothing. Now we have something,” said scribe Marjorie David, a co-exec producer on NBC’s rookie drama “Life.”

Outside the New York meeting, Michael Moore touted the deal as a historic moment for writers in this country, adding, “There is a certain irony about the achievement. I would have thought it’d be autoworkers or ironworkers getting this victory but instead it’s the people who got beat up in school for writing in their journals.”

Verrone on Sunday warned that Hollywood actors may go on strike when their contract expires June 30, although the WGA deal has diminished that possibility. In addition, with moguls such as Chernin and Iger getting directly involved in crafting both the WGA and DGA deals, there’s an expectation that the execs will be a part of the upcoming SAG-AFTRA negotiations in an effort to preempt another strike.

Presumably, the actors will study the DGA and WGA templates — not only in terms of demands, but in terms of negotiating methods and timing.

Verrone was particularly hearty in his praise of WGA members, noting that he’d been warned that going on strike with writers would be akin to herding cats, asserting, “They roared.”

Many had expected the board to call off the strike as of today, but Verrone said it was essential to put the question of ending the strike to the membership.

“They were the face of the struggle on a daily basis,” he added.

Negotiating committee chairman John Bowman told the news conference that the strike was necessary to achieve key gains in jurisdiction over new media and tying new-media residuals to distributor’s gross.

He dubbed the cratering of the Jan. 13 Golden Globes (a glitzy ceremony was ditched after actors refused to cross picket lines) as a milestone in convincing the companies that the creative community would stick together.

Young said the settlement came at a time when both sides were feeling equally pressured, with the companies wanting to salvage the TV season before the middle of February. He also noted that the threat of picketing the Oscars was part of the WGA arsenal.

At that point, high-profile showrunners and screenwriters were also pressuring WGA leaders to end the strike, warning that they’d go public with their dissatisfaction — particularly with the DGA deal in place as a template.

The urgency to resolve the writers strike took on added weight after the AMPTP had ditched negotiations on Dec. 7 over the WGA’s refusal to remove six proposals from the table.

The CEOs had already held informal talks with the DGA in October and November, so when WGA talks broke off, the CEOs turned their attention to the helmers to hammer out a template for a deal. On Jan. 17, the DGA and AMPTP came to an agreement after six days.

The CEOs then decided they had to change tactics to resume talks with the writers in recognition of the ill will from the previous WGA-AMPTP talks. So both sides dispensed with precedent and decided to hold smaller, informal talks. Iger and Chernin, along with AMPTP topper Nick Counter and VP Carol Lombardini, began talks with the WGA’s Verrone, Young and Bowman.

Iger and Chernin were considered the logical choices because both Disney-ABC and News Corp. are involved in both movie production and TV production as well as owning networks. (NBC Universal also fit that profile, but Jeff Zucker was less available since he’s New York-based.)

Those seven met regularly during the last two weeks of January, although Verrone — as the public face of the WGA — was in the room less often than Young and Bowman. The WGA also brought in attorney Alan Wertheimer and general counsel Tony Segall as a deal began to take shape.

Sources familiar with the talks said that in the past two weeks, there wasn’t one turning point but rather the constant hammering out of fine points — although both sides admit that a key was the decision to give the WGA a piece of distributor’s gross in the third year on web streaming.

Verrone’s move to drop proposals for reality and animation was key in showing the moguls that the guild wanted to reach a deal. And Wertheimer received praise from both sides for keeping the talks on track.

“I was grateful for the opportunity to assist with these negotiations, and I’m honored to be told that my participation contributed to a historic successful outcome,” he told Daily Variety. “People on both sides were cordial, constructive and committed to finding a solution to a number of difficult problems. I hope that direct dialogue with the CEOs in the context of informal meetings can serve as a model for future bargaining.”

The contract is expected to include a provision that will allow scribes who were force majeure’d from ongoing series to return to their old jobs.

Insiders cautioned, however, that some issues regarding that deal point are still being worked out by guild and studio lawyers. The contract does not address those who were force majeure’d from overall deals and other contracts if they were not working on a series that will resume production.

(Dade Hayes in New York and Cynthia Littleton in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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