Studios: WGA upped SAG rancor

Majors: Guild snag due to writers' kibbitzing

Hollywood’s labor brawl has turned ugly, with the majors accusing the Writers Guild of America of pushing SAG to strike by “blatantly” sabotaging the guild’s last round of negotiations.

In a fiery blast at the Writers Guild, the congloms said Monday that the WGA had deliberately undermined the Nov. 20-21 SAG talks, held under supervision of a federal mediator. The anger is so fierce that any good will that may have lingered between the WGA and the congloms at the end of the writers strike last February has dissipated.

At issue is the WGA’s Nov. 19 announcement accusing the companies of not paying new-media residuals and contending that the companies had reneged on the deal terms. The WGA insisted Monday that the timing of its announcement was coincidental and unrelated to the SAG talks — which cratered after two days — but the companies aren’t buying that.

“The WGA’s press release was highly misleading and seems to have been designed to poison the atmosphere for the federal mediation rather than to actually ensure that residual payments are made to working writers,” the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers said. “Instead of working cooperatively with the companies to resolve any outstanding issues, the WGA went public on the eve of the crucial SAG-AMPTP negotiations. This move was blatantly designed to disrupt that mediation and help justify SAG’s eventual decision to reject the AMPTP’s offer and end the mediation.”

The AMPTP also noted that WGA’s arbitration claim — disputing the effective trigger date for applying the new-media formula — was also designed to provoke a SAG strike.

“WGA filed this arbitration claim to generate the kind of media coverage that would poison the atmosphere just prior to the start of federal mediation,” the AMPTP said. “The language at issue in the WGA agreement is exactly the same language that was included in each of the guild and union contracts negotiated this year.  No other guild or union has ever questioned the interpretation of the language.”

For its part, the WGA held firm and said it’s attempted for eight months to address the AMPTP’s “erroneous” interpretation of the deal. And it tweaked the congloms over the accusation regarding the timing of its announcement, noting that the companies had reached a deal with the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees on Nov. 19.

“While the date the arbitration was filed was not related to negotiations between SAG and the AMPTP, it is important to point out that the AMPTP apparently had no qualms about announcing its “deal” with the IATSE on the day prior to the mediation with SAG, obviously timed to impact on those discussions,” the WGA said.

The AMPTP, in a “fact sheet,” insisted that studios had made extensive efforts to pay writers for streaming and downloads, with new systems being put into place to calculate and distribute streaming residuals. And it said that it had informed the WGA of “steady progress” being made.

According to the AMPTP, the new procedures include “unprecedented” numbers of new formulas for residual payments for streaming, downloads and derivative and original made-for-new-media programs. In addition, payment systems must account for a variety of new variables such as platform, release window, library vs. current product and allocations to each union.

“WGA also knew that, to the extent the difficulties in creating these new systems delayed payments beyond their due dates, the studios would owe interest payments as called for by the labor agreement,” the AMPTP said. “WGA knew all of this and nonetheless issued its press release.”

During its contract fight with the companies, SAG’s only serious union support has come from the WGA. In a Labor Day message to members, WGA West president Patric Verrone and WGA East prexy Michael Winship had endorsed the idea of SAG holding out for a better deal; in the Nov. 19 announcement, Verrone blasted the AMPTP for being duplicitous in how it’s characterized what SAG members would have received had they accepted the companies’ final offer, made June 30 as the SAG contract expired.

“In light of the fact that writers are not being paid for new-media reuse, it’s unconscionable that the AMPTP proclaims on its website, ‘By working under an expired contract, SAG members are not receiving the new-media residuals that other guild members are already collecting,’ ” Verrone said. “The companies know what is being streamed, and they regularly announce how successful they are in generating online advertising revenue, so there’s no reason for them not to honor the agreement they made with us.”

SAG joined in with two blasts Monday at the AMPTP — one that disputed the AMPTP’s contentions in the WGA press release (“The timing of the WGA press release is no more suspect than the timing of the AMPTP/IATSE tentative agreement”) and another that responded to the “open letter” from eight CEOs, which asserted that SAG’s being elitist by demanding a better deal than the other unions.

“Today’s open letter, full-page ad from the eight entertainment industry moguls is confirmation of their continued refusal to bargain with Screen Actors Guild.  In an effort to push negotiations forward in the face of AMPTP stonewalling, we asked two of the CEOs who signed this letter to get involved in the talks in September,” SAG said. “They refused. We wish they had taken us up on our offer. It better serves the industry to negotiate than to buy and respond to $100,000 newspaper ads.”

SAG also reiterated its assertion that the agreements with other guilds and unions can’t dictate actors’ terms just because they are part of a pattern set by the DGA — which negotiated the first deal in January.

In the final shot of the day, the AMPTP fired back by noting it had negotiated with SAG for 46 days without the guild successfully making the case for why it deserves a better deal than the others and asserting that SAG’s ignoring the current financial crisis.

“On a day when the United States was officially declared to be in a recession, when Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal emergency for California, and when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 680 points, SAG continues to demand more and better than everyone else,” the group said. “Unfortunately, the chasm between reality and SAG seems to widen by the day.”

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