WGA outlines key issues at upcoming contract negotiations

It may be a bumpy ride again for Hollywood when it comes to a new deal for writers.

Three years after going on strike for 100 days, the Writers Guild of America West has outlined its key issues at the upcoming contract negotiations — better pay for pension and health, basic cable and new media, and improved working conditions for scribes.

In a four-page “Contract 2011 Bulletin” sent Monday to 8,000 WGA West members, president John Wells and exec director David Young said the missive follows a year’s prepping by board and staff for the negotiations. The WGA master contract expires May 1, but the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers hasn’t yet set a start date for negotiations.

The AMPTP had no comment, but it took a hard line this summer in talks with Teamster drivers, insisting that it would take a strike rather than boost wages more than 2%.

“While this bulletin outlines many of the areas we believe will need to be addressed, it is not intended to be exhaustive,” Wells and Young wrote, noting that outreach meetings have been set for Nov. 9, Nov. 16 and Dec. 2.

“There are other issues we are examining further and we are anxious to begin our membership outreach meetings to gather more member input into the issues (both economic and workplace) that are confronting writers in this challenging economic climate,” Wells and Young said.

The duo noted that the guild is “fortunate” to have John Bowman and Billy Ray as co-chairs of its negotiation committee and said that members of the panel will be named shortly. Bowman chaired the negotiating committee during the lengthy and contentious contract talks with the AMPTP, which began in July 2007 and didn’t conclude for seven more months.

The WGA has tended to opt for starting negotiations closer to expiration than its counterparts. In 2001 and 2004, the deals were negotiated after the contracts expired; in 2007, talks didn’t start until three months prior to expiration and went nowhere due to profound disagreements on new media and residuals, with the companies launching negotiations with a proposal that the WGA agree to ditch the residuals structure in favor of a profit-based system.

Monday’s bulletin said that the WGA’s due for hikes in employers’ contributions to pension and health, noting that the plans are the “cornerstone” of the master contract. It noted that the employers’ current 6% pension contribution hasn’t been changed since 1982.

The Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America are facing similar pressures on their health and pension plans and the DGA has been emphasizing to members that improving contributions will be a priority at its talks, set to start in three weeks.

The missive also said the companies need to bring up basic cable fees ($23,370 for TNT’s “The Closer”) in line with script fees of $33,681 for network and pay TV shows such as CBS’s “CSI” and Showtime’s “Dexter.”

“Viewers do not distinguish between made-for-network and made-for-basic cable programs and writers must deliver comparable product to both markets for a show to be successful,” the guild said.

The new media portion of the bulletin began by asserting that it needs to shorten the free 17-day window for ad-supported streaming and the 24-day streaming window for a series in its first year. It also said the fixed residuals for continued streaming need to be increased in line with the current marketplace; that writers should be compensated for use of clips; and that the current provisions for coverage of made-for-new-media programs may need improvement.

The WGA also noted that screenwriters have been required to make multiple pitches and violate the contract by providing written material before being hired. The guild asserted that TV writers are being hampered by exclusivity clauses and abuse of option periods.

The WGA said it will propose establishing a training program for screenwriters, similar to the Showrunner Training Program, which has trained 133 writer-producers since 2004.

As usual, the WGA’s bulletin offers more detail than the other guilds. SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists are in the fifth week of talks on the feature-primetime contract but have revealed nothing about strategy or priorities.

The master labor contracts for SAG, AFTRA and the DGA covering film and primetime work all expire on June 30.

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