WGA, congloms putting off negotiations

Three years after the writers strike shook Hollywood to its core, neither side’s anxious to get back to bargaining.

The congloms, repped through the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, and the Writers Guild of America have been putting off starting negotiations — even with the contract expiring in just two months on May 1. Neither side’s commented officially but they’ve begun the process of informal contacts to set up a schedule and formal announcement of the start of talks is expected within the next week or two.

For now, both sides have refrained from publicly sniping at each other — a sharp contrast with the run-up to the 2007 negotiations.

Several sources have speculated that the lack of a start date at this point in the process indicates that plenty of enmity remains between the two sides following the spectacular cratering of negotiations the last time around, leading to the bitter 100-day work stoppage. The final weeks of negotiation featured the direct involvement of Barry Meyer of Warner Bros. and Peter Chernin of Fox.

It’s unlikely that the CEOs will become involved during the upcoming WGA talks — unless the WGA goes on strike. But the WGA’s given no signal that it’s moving in that direction with pre-negotiations rhetoric largely absent and the economy still struggling to emerge from recession.

The WGA’s leverage has also been curtailed this time since it’s going last in the current cycle. The talks will start with the AMPTP certain to contend that the deal for the WGA will have to follow the template set in the successor contracts already ratified by the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists and the Directors Guild of America.

Those pacts contain a 2% gain in minimum salaries, a hike in pension and health contributions from employers and the elimination of requiring first-class air travel when creatives are required to journey to sets.

The WGA hasn’t said anything publicly since Feb. 3 when it announced that its members had overwhelmingly endorsed its list of 22 demands for a successor contract.

The issues include increased minimums, higher contributions for pension and health, increased residuals for basic cable and new media, boosting pay rates at the CW to those of other networks, increasing homevideo residuals and expanding WGA jurisdiction to motion capture, animation and videogames. WGA West president John Wells and WGA East prez Michael Winship have singled out pension and health as a key issue.

Wells, one of the town’s most prominent showrunners, is perceived as more moderate than his predecessor Patric Verrone. Wells was elected last year over Verrone ally Elias Davis after Verrone was termed out from seeking the presidency again.

The WGA had announced in July that it had tapped John Bowman and Billy Ray as co-chairs of its negotiation committee. Bowman chaired the negotiating committee during the last contract talks with the AMPTP, which began in July 2007 and didn’t conclude for seven more months at the end of the strike.

Other members on the negotiating committee includes screenwriters Andrew Bergman and Stephen Schiff, “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof and Mike Scully, a longtime writer and exec proiducer on “The Simpsons,” along with Alfredo Barrios, John Brancato, Patti Carr, Jonathan Fernandez, David A. Goodman, Chip Johannessen, Ron Moore, Jeremy Pikser, Shawn Ryan and Thania St. John.

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.

Major gains for the actors and directors came in pension and health contributions. Under the new deals going into effect June 30, employers will pay 15.5% for the DGA and 16.5% for SAG and AFTRA.

Employers of WGA members currently pay 14.5% (8.5% health, 6% pension) on top of every dollar of compensation into the pension and health plans. Those plans are operated separately from the unions, with an industry-union board overseeing each.

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