Writers Guild of America leaders have defended their decision to avoid taking the final steps toward a strike in a letter to members.

And they have declared they believe the film companies’ final offer was as good as anything they could have achieved by striking.

“We strongly recommend its approval,” the panel said in the notification to members about the tentative deal. “While we did not achieve all the goals we sought, we do believe we won substantially all that we could in this round of negotiations — strike or no strike.”

The guild’s negotiating committee asserted: “As the contract deadline loomed, and then passed, it became apparent from member outreach meetings, emails and telephone calls that there was a clear consensus among writers. Very few members were eager to strike, but overwhelmingly writers were willing to strike if the leadership of the WGA East and West had good reasons to ask them to.”

Ballot time

WGA West has set an informational meeting for 7.30 p.m. Thursday at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills and will mail out pro and con statements from members along with the ratification ballots, which should be in members’ hands by next week. The 11,000 members have until June 4 to submit ballots.

The WGAW board and the WGAE Council unanimously approved the deal May 8, four days after it was reached. Rank-and-file writers have indicated they will support it, in contrast to the reaction four years ago, when members narrowly voted down a tentative agreement.

The negotiations recap was mailed and posted on the WGA Web site Friday. In a telling comment in the cover letter, WGAW prexy John Wells and WGAE prexy Herb Sargent stressed the pact’s long-term gains from still-developing sectors.

“Our industry is rapidly changing, and this is only the first of what is likely to be a series of difficult contract negotiations over the next 10 years if we are to keep pace with a rapidly evolving marketplace for our works,” they noted.

The negotiating committee called the three-year pact, which contains $41 million in pay hikes, the best economic deal in 20 years. It devoted the largest part of its message to explaining why the pact contains no gain in video residuals — an area viewed as a potential deal-breaker by both sides at the negotiating table — in exchange for a $5,000 DVD payout, a 1.2% fee on movies on demand and Internet re-use rather than the 0.36% rate for video.

Vid nix

The WGA had complained that the video formula was outmoded and unfair, but the studios were intractable during the negotiations.”From the first we realized that this historic inequity would be exceedingly difficult to overturn after 16 years, but we pressed on with our proposals until the last days of bargaining,” the panel said. “Ultimately, we decided to focus our efforts on assuring the future (video on demand and some types of Internet reuse) and to obtain a new fee payable only to screenwriters for cassettes and DVD rather than trying to rectify the past.”

The negotiators also predicted that residuals from movies on demand and other Internet delivery systems will eventually “far surpass” the $25 million annual payout for video/DVD. The deal contains a re-opener clause if other Internet markets develop plus a “favored nations” option to use any Internet terms negotiated by the Screen Actors Guild this year or the Directors Guild of America in 2002.

On the TV side, the panel highlighted Fox’s agreement to raise its residuals to equal Big Three rates in the contract’s third year, the uncapping of foreign residuals (based on revenues from foreign sales reaching specific thresholds) in perpetuity, a 20% gain in made-for-basic cable and a jump from $300,000 to $4 million annually for made-for-pay TV services such as HBO.

It admitted disappointment at not obtaining hikes in network shows that are rerun on basic cable and not expanding jurisdiction over animation writing.

No credit

In the potentially divisive “creative rights” arena, the negotiators acknowledged that the deal fell short of goals such as elimination of the “Film By” credit but contended that the agreements should be viewed as breakthroughs. The gains, with details to be hammered out with the DGA, include access to sets, cast readings, festivals and premieres along with mandatory writer-director meetings when the director is hired.

“We won a series of small but important victories that will result in greater participation of the writer in the production, marketing and publicity of the films that they write,” the committee said. “We now have the foundation on which we can build a new model for writer-director collaboration, and we thank the DGA for their efforts on our behalf during this negotiation.”

The WGA panel also signaled that it would continue to battle the DGA on the “Film By” credit and noted that compromise proposals from both sides were rejected. It called the DGA proposal “insufficient” and wrote, “While it would have limited the number of possessive credits awarded to directors, it would have institutionalized forever the use of a credit that we find misleading as well as demeaning.”

Negotiators said the creative rights advances were “substantial” but should be viewed as a “beginning.” “They have opened a door that for decades everyone believed was a brick wall, and they have the potential of creating an unprecedented dialogue in the creative community and in the culture at large — a dialogue that can and must result in a new and well-deserved respect for the writer as creative artist.”

Other gains highlighted in the 20-page document:

  • An experimental program for programming sitting “on the shelf,” offering an 80% discount on rerun residuals on half-hour series that have sold to less than half of U.S. markets.

  • Residuals for Fox, WB and UPN paid within 30 days rather than four months as of May 2003.

  • Reacquisition window for screenplays to begin up to 10 years after delivery rather than the current seven years.

  • Daytime serial writers’ trial period cut to nine weeks from 11 with a week’s vacation after 26 weeks.