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WGA, AMPTP Contract Talks Suspended for One Week

The WGA and Hollywood’s major studios have ended contract negotiations for a week while the guild conducts its strike authorization vote. The sides have agreed to resume talks on April 25, the day after the guild concludes the voting to authorize a work stoppage.

The decision will leave negotiators just four business days to hammer out an agreement before the May 1 expiration of the current contract.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers put a new offer on the table last Thursday, after four days of talks. The new deal was said to include proposals addressing one of the WGA’s key concerns, the compensation structure for lower-rung writers working on short order series. A source close to the situation described the offer as a small improvement from the WGA’s perspective but cautioned that the sides are still far apart on other points and there are still disagreements on the short-order series compensation formula.

Another source said there was little progress during the meeting on Monday. There was some frustration on the AMPTP side as executives believe their WGA counterparts were not prepared to fully engage in negotiations until after the strike authorization vote.

At the same time, the guild is said to have stopped short of rejecting the AMPTP offer outright, but is pushing to bring script fees for basic cable and streaming up to parity with broadcast and for higher employer contributions to its health plan, which is in danger of running out of money.

The AMPTP’s stance in the WGA negotiations is influenced by the fact that it has contract talks with SAG-AFTRA around the corner against a June 30 contract expiration deadline. Any major financial gains secured by the WGA would be demanded by the performers’ union, not to mention the DGA in the next round of bargaining.

The DGA concluded its master contract negotiations in December in a deal that was expected to set the template for talks with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. The WGA has pressed hard on several writer-specific issues that aren’t a factor for directors guild, complicating the negotiations for the studios.

The guild’s strike authorization vote will begin on Wednesday and conclude April 24. The conflicts at the bargaining table this time around are the closest that the industry has come to a broad-based strike threat in a decade, since the last WGA work stoppage that ran Nov. 5, 2007 to Feb. 12, 2008.

The WGA and AMPTP have been operating in a news blackout while negotiations are ongoing. The WGA is hosting membership meetings in Los Angeles and New York on Tuesday and Wednesday evening to discuss the state of contract negotiations and rally scribes behind the strike authorization vote. The WGA and major studios began the negotiations on March 13 with nearly two weeks of bargaining.

The sides resumed talks on April 10, after the WGA initiated the strike authorization vote. The WGA rejected the first offer made by the studios on March 23, saying it was inadequate to address the economic pressures that writers face amid the massive shifts in the entertainment business, particularly in television.

Last week multiple sources reported that the sides had made some headway on one key issue involving the way writers are paid when working on so-called short order series (running less than 22 episodes per season) with long production timetables.

The guild is pushing for higher compensation on shows where the work schedule for scribes runs more than two weeks per episode — a growing problem for writers on cable and streaming series. The so-called span issue was the subject of much discussion in the negotiating room last week week, sources said.

The AMPTP’s new proposal is believed to basically accept the WGA’s proposed formula for boosting writer income on short-order shows but would limit those gains to the lower-rung writers on a show, and would exclude writers working under overall deals and highly paid showrunners and exec producers. It’s not clear if that targeting is structured by job classification or salary level.

The TV compensation issues are a direct result of the massive growth in series production and the evolution of the business from long-established norms of what constituted a TV season. The TV components of the WGA’s 600-page Minimum Basic Agreement are largely rooted in an industry defined by the traditional September-May, 22-episode season, but those shows are no longer the norm in TV.

The big problem with the compensation structure for low- and mid-level writers working on short-order shows running anywhere from 6 to 13 episodes is that they can wind up working more weeks for less money than they would earn on a traditional 22-episode order. At present, WGA scale for writers paid per episode is designed to cover two weeks’ worth of work.

But most writers above the executive story editor level earn higher than scale episodic fees that are negotiated through their talent reps. With series production timetables that frequently run longer than two weeks per episode, fees are stretched out to ensure that a writer is at least earning scale in accordance with the guild contract. That has the effect of lowering an experienced writer’s effective rate when it comes time to negotiate his or her next deal.

The WGA proposal calls for studios to pay writers the weekly equivalent of their negotiated episodic fee for each week that the writer is engaged beyond the standard two weeks per episode. Extended work terms has become a concern as more producers and showrunners seek longer periods of writing prep time before lensing begins. The proposal also seeks to set specific 12-month parameters around what constitutes a TV season, or the “span” in WGA parlance.

The AMPTP offer is also said to pro-rate the fees for extra weeks on a sliding scale depending on the number of weeks guaranteed for a writer at the outset of employment. The guild is said to be pushing for higher fees across the board.

The WGA and AMPTP declined to comment.

The WGA told members about the break in talks in a message sent Monday night that urged writers to participate in the strike authorization vote.

“In the meantime, we ask for your support in the Strike Authorization Vote, which will give us the leverage we need to speak for a strong and unified Guild when we return to the table,” WGA negotiating committee co-chairs Chip Johannessen, Chris Keyser and Billy Ray wrote.

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