Hollywood should brace itself for another rocky ride with writers.
That’s the indication, with eight months to go before the film-TV contract expires. The complex and contentious issues of DVD residuals, jurisdiction over reality TV, healthcare costs and free rewrites have become touchstones for Hollywood scribes as the WGA preps for contract negotiations.
Although the Guild has not yet formulated a bargaining proposal, those topics have emerged as the most pressing among the 25 WGA West candidates in official campaign statements released Tuesday in a 92-page booklet sent to 8,500 WGAW members. With the three-year film-TV contract expiring May 1, the statements offer an early peek at major concerns of the town’s scripters and signals the tenor of the upcoming bargaining will likely be both confrontational and lengthy.
“I don’t view the companies we negotiate with as unfeeling behemoths determined to snuff out our economic lives by acquiring, using and reusing our work and exploiting it for next to nothing,” wrote board candidate Tim O’Donnell. “That is far too benign a view of them.”
‘Mad as hell’
Board candidate Elias Davis, noting he had worked with Paddy Chayefsky (“Network”), said, “To borrow a phrase from that movie that has found resonance for many of us, we need to make it clear that we are mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore!”
No date has yet been set for negotiations to start, with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expected to wait until after the election is completed Sept. 18 before attempting to set a timetable. The WGA’s last negotiation in 2001 was marked with acrimony from both sides, along with stockpiling of product by studios and nets in anticipation of a strike; after a nerve-wracking winter and spring, the final deal was hammered out three days after the contract expired.
Incumbent VP Charles Holland predicted the AMPTP will propose rollbacks. “Every negotiating instinct in my body tells me management will try them and base rollbacks on cost increases,” he asserted. “But rollbacks are not appropriate as applied to writers. Writers costs have not increased relative to other costs. Moreover, we have not shared in the record box office or in the enormous asset growth of networks and cable companies. In both instances — box office and asset growth — it was done on the backs of property rights, i.e. copyrights provided by our members. No rollbacks.”
Board candidate Christina Lynch was the only one to mention the possibility of a strike, writing, “When the time comes, if we have to strike, we need to make sure we circle the wagons and all stand together or else we will all lose.”
Several candidates offered particularly gloomy outlooks of the current state of the scripting biz.
“It’s a scary time to be a writer,” wrote board candidate Robert King. “The economy is bad. Healthcare is skyrocketing. The studios are pressing us for every dime. Perhaps scariest of all, the middle has fallen out of the TV and feature business. If you aren’t a writer starting out — and thus cheap enough to warrant the risk — or a writer in the top 40 — and thus expensive enough to beggar argument — then you are in trouble.”
Guild members will fill the slots for president, VP, treasurer and eight board seats, with the key contest between incumbent Victoria Riskin and Eric Hughes for the presidency.
Riskin’s statement touted ramped-up efforts to organize reality TV and animation, a new indie film contract, opposition to the FCC’s eased ownership rules, a “high level of compliance” by companies with the 2001 voluntary code of preferred practices in how screenwriters are treated, and the four-year-old arbitration on 55 claims of free rewrites. She disclosed a decision on the arbitrations is expected this fall.
Riskin also said members have asked for negotiators to focus on healthcare costs, DVDs, organizing animation and reality TV, feature credits, TV employment practices, residuals in basic and pay cable, more diversity and creative rights.
Hughes stressed the need to enforce the basic agreement and asserted the WGA needs more of a public voice. “We have no advocate like (the MPAA’s) Jack Valenti,” he wrote. “We need to always be out there, just as our work infiltrates the unconscious of our audience, we as individuals have to do the same.”
Hughes also criticized the WGA for what he portrayed as a lack of aggressiveness in late payments, monitoring residuals, keeping writers apprised of cuts in healthcare benefits and getting back copyright ownership. “Writers not only feel disenfranchised from their own guild, but the younger ones, especially, don’t actually realize it’s a guild,” he said.
Other positions advocated by candidates included dealing with the proliferation on non-writing producers in TV and declining reruns on network TV, merging with the WGA East, dealing directly with directors in disputes rather than involving companies, and elimination of agency packaging fees.
Board candidate Peter Lefcourt made a plea for unity.
“In this chaotic, fractionalized marketplace, there is a great deal of fear and financial insecurity among our members,” he wrote. “Now, more than ever, we need to be strong and cohesive in the face of management’s attempt to divide and conquer us.”
In the 2001 negotiations, the high points were getting Fox residuals up to network levels; uncapped foreign TV residuals; big hikes in made-for-pay cable; and the agreement to form a committee with the DGA to draft a code of preferred practices.
The biggest complaints came from no gain in videocassette/DVD residuals, only slightly eased by the last-minute inclusion of a $5,000 payment for the right to include the screenplay on DVD. An Internet deal, which includes reuse payments of 1.2% of licensing fees, was viewed as not going far enough.
Writers’ earnings have been flat or gained only slightly in recent years. Screenwriter earnings for 2001 totaled $388 million, TV earnings hit $373.7 million and pay TV was more than $14 million.