Scribes embrace pact at Saturday meetings

Writers Guild of America members gave a resounding thumbs-up to the guild’s new contract agreement at membership meetings held Saturday in Gotham and L.A., clearing the path for the three-month-old writers strike to end by midweek.

At the L.A. meeting at the Shrine Auditorium, WGA West leaders told the crowd of more than 3,500 members that the WGA West board and WGA East council would meet Sunday morning to formally recommend the deal for ratification, and to approve a special 48-hour vote among members about whether to end the strike. The boards are also expected to begin the process of holding a 10-day ratification vote for members to formally seal the new three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Word of the 48-hour vote on ending the strike caught many by surprise on Saturday night, given the expectation that the WGA’s governing bodies would vote on a back-to-work order that could take effect on Monday. The guild’s Saturday meetings were closed to the press, and guild leaders would not comment on the specifics of the 48-hour voting process. Many members who attended the L.A. meeting said that the back-to-work order was pro forma and that they would resume work immediately on TV shows and film projects left in limbo when the WGA strike began on Nov. 5.

Despite the unexpected move on the strike vote, support and adulation for WGA West prexy Patric Verrone and WGA West exec director David Young reached a fever pitch during the roughly two and a half hour gathering at the Shrine. Both toppers received standing ovations for their opening remarks, as did negotiating committee chief John Bowman.

Attendees on both coasts praised the guild leaders for maintaining solidarity among the membership during the extreme hardship of the strike, and for achieving major financial gains in the new deal – including compensation for new media reuse of TV shows and movies and in securing WGA jurisdiction for writing done for the Internet, within predetermined budget levels.

“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,” said TV vet Mike Scully after the L.A. meeting. “Anyone who would say ‘Well, we didn’t get everything we asked for’ doesn’t know what a labor negotiation. This is a very good deal for us.”

In fact, there was virtually no dissent or harsh criticism of the deal terms raised during the L.A. powwow, numerous attendees said. Verrone and Young were meticulous and forthright in talking the crowd through each of the major deal points, copies of which were distributed to the crowd, and discussing where they scored victories and where they made concessions, and why.

One of the most disliked elements of the deal is in the area of 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.

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

“Euphoric” is how scribe David Fury, exec producer of Fox’s “24, described the feeling inside the Shrine. “We gained a lot, and it lays the groundwork for three years from now” when the WGA’s next pact will be negotiated. “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, Fury said.

Many members pointed to the deal that the AMPTP put on the table when the WGA negotiations formally began in July, when the majors proposed a major revamp of the film and TV residuals system that WGA members viewed with alarm as a massive rollback in residuals and scribe compensation schemes. Verrone, Young and Bowman are viewed as “heroes” for holding their ground and keeping “rollbacks” at bay in the negotiation.

“They were offering us nothing. Now we have something,” said scribe Marjorie David, a co-exec producer on NBC’s new drama “Life.”

“They’ve done a very good job. I’m happy,” said industry vet Paul Mazursky.

“We’re as happy as we can be about it,” said “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal.

“There are certain precedent-setting things in this contract that are huge for us,” said TV vet Alan Spencer. “The Internet jurisdiction is so important, and it is world wide.”

The Shrine powwow began about a half-hour after its skedded start time of 7 p.m. Dozens of members were still flowing in to the Shrine as late as 7:45 p.m.

“People are ready to go back to work,” said member Jon Michaels. “When we started this the companies were talking about rollbacks on residuals, and now we have new media jurisdiction. It’s not a perfect deal by any means. But there are a lot of people working in other (areas of the biz) who are suffering. We’re not indifferent to that.”

Michaels said he was personally disappointed about the guild dropping its push for reality and animation jurisdiction. He moves between scripted and unscripted shows and said working conditions in the reality genre are getting worse and worse.

As the start time of the meeting drew near, numerous members made their way out to Jefferson Boulevard to share their thoughts with the hive of reporters who buzzed around the sidewalk but were kept strictly at bay from the auditorium grounds by security.

“The strike was definitely worth it,” said “Dirty Sexy Money” creator Craig Wright as he walked into the meeting. “There’s not a single gain that we made that we would have got if we hadn’t been on strike. But it’s time to end it. It’s time to go back to work.”

Wright quipped that in preparation for a celebratory meeting, he packed along a fair number of “Jell-O shots made with Bombay Sapphire gin.”

The mood and tone was similar in Gotham on Saturday afternoon when the WGA East held its meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Broadway theater district.

Some skeptics drilled into details and asked pointed questions, but an exodus of satisfied scribes began about an hour into the meeting.

“This is a historic moment for writers in this country,” said Michael Moore. “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.”

“Late Show with David Letterman” writer Bill Scheft described a galvanizing moment early on when filmmaker Terry George rose to speak. “He said we have defeated a tradition of rollbacks that goes back to the air-traffic controllers in 1981,” Scheft said. “And that was all I needed to hear.”

While not every scribe was quite as ebullient, the mood was undeniably upbeat. “I will vote for this deal but I have a few more questions because I’m bad at math,” said screenwriter Steven Katz, in a remark typical of those by rank-and-filers emerging from the hotel’s bland conference room.

“Saturday Night Live” cast member Seth Myers, a constant presence on the picket lines, said members felt “we were right about these things.” He said the show would resume quickly, perhaps as early as Feb. 16.

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