For the first time in over a decade, Hollywood’s spotlight is shining on the writers.
Even though the Writers Guild of America has declared repeatedly that it doesn’t want a strike, the threat of a work stoppage has driven production to frenzied levels. With a May 2 contract expiration looming, studios and networks have been stockpiling as many features and TV programs as possible.
Additionally, the negotiations are seen by some as being particularly crucial in terms of whether the Screen Actors Guild will strike when the actors’ film-TV contract expires July 1. Most observers that a WGA strike will lead to a strike by SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.
Giving the talks still more visibility is the role of John Wells as president of the WGA West. The presence of Wells, the highly successful exec producer of “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Third Watch,” raised hopes that his insider’s knowledge and clout would kick-start serious negotiations.
As a result, the WGA talks have been under a microscope — since even before the Guild came to the table Jan. 22 with a series of bold proposals. The Guild spent the previous year building support for negotiating major changes in outmoded parts of the contract, some which had not been changed in decades.
The WGA’s strike in 1988 lasted five months and delayed the start of the fall TV season. That led to the next three contracts being negotiated through fast-track talks beginning as much as a year prior to expiration, but that approach fell by the wayside this time.
Attempts to launch early negotiations in October collapsed amid accusations by the WGA that producers were seeking rollbacks in residuals. Instead, the WGA negotiators hammered out a contract offer drawn from a 42-item “pattern of demands” that 89% of voting members approved last fall.
The key issues were major revamps of the residuals structures for foreign, cable, video/DVD and the Fox network, along with non-financial “creative-rights” issues such as elimination of the possessory credit, payment of writers during principal photography and guaranteed access to sets.
“Simply stated, and to paraphrase the great Paddy Chayefsky, writers are not going to take it anymore,” said WGA West exec director John McLean just before talks started. “We simply seek to begin to change a culture that has evolved to the point where the writer is too often marginalized.”
But the town’s execs — who negotiate through the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers — were stunned over what they perceive as the audacity of the WGA demands. Before negotiations started, heavy hitters such as Disney’s Robert Iger, Warner Bros.’ Barry Meyer and DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg complained that the WGA’s demands, spread over all major entertainment unions over three years, would cost $2.4 billion.
The WGA countered that the company estimates were bogus and the proposed increases would cost $750 million among writers, actors and directors.
The demands for improved creative rights spurred strong opposition from the Directors Guild of America, which labeled the proposals as economically irresponsible. The AMPTP argued that the WGA should make a separate deal with the DGA, but the writers declared that it was the companies’ responsibility to handle the nego-tiations.
The negotiations themselves appeared to go relatively smoothly, with the WGA dropping its two-week dead-line on Feb. 3 and agreeing to day-to-day extensions of the talks. Public declarations on the state of the negotiations were kept to a bare-bones minimum, leading observers to conclude that the talks had at least a chance of success.
A couple of controversies flared during negotiations: Thomas Short, prexy of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, blasted the WGA for not sticking to hard-core economic issues; the WGA filed unfair labor practice charges against six companies for alleged failure to disclose information about stockpiling practices.
One of those targets, producer Dick Wolf, said he was being singled out in response for his criticism of the WGA’s bringing non-economic issues to the table. The WGA also said it would investigate whether members working on stockpiled scripts could be subject to union discipline.
The DGA also disclosed in the fifth week that it had turned down a chance to observe the talks, pointing to its disagreement with the WGA on the creative-rights issues. That prompted the WGA to issue an appeal for solidarity.
“As the Writers Guild enters its fifth week of negotiations with the companies, it is clear that the members of the WGA East and West, SAG, AFTRA, the Teamsters, IATSE and DGA will be best served through open and ongoing communications and mutual support.”