Disc dispute has showbiz spinning

HOLLYWOOD – The writers and studios are back at the table — and Tinseltown is in for a ticklish month as the scribes arm-wrestle the media congloms in their tri-annual labor negotiations.

At the center of the tussle this time around is the DVD — and the disparate views the two sides have of it.

For the studios and producers, the disc represents a godsend since their other revenue streams are slowing down; for the writers, it reps an unprecedented windfall from which they’re largely excluded.

Still, in contrast to 1988, when a five-month writers’ strike brought showbiz to a near-standstill, few industry insiders expect the scribes to hit the picket lines this time around, if they can just chip away at the DVD issue.

During the previous labor round in 2001, Hollywood endured a de facto strike (or lockout, from the writers’ view) as studios rushed to stockpile pics and hatch alternative TV season scenarios. An agreement finally was inked three days after deadline.

The talks this time will be intense, because they’re concentrated in a four-week frame before the current contract’s May 2 expiration.

Initial leverage seems to lie with the producers.

For one thing, the scribes are largely on their own, as the 140,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA have already opted to postpone their own talks with producers for a year, accepting a modest 2.5% hike in base minimums between July 1, 2004 and June 30, 2005.

Moreover, the 12,000- strong Writers Guild has just been through internal travails, with the inglorious resignation of Victoria Riskin as prexy in January followed by the similarly eyebrow-raising ankling of her appointed replacement Charles Holland last month.

And the economy has recovered only in fits and starts, with job creation for the rest of the year still a big unknown. A shaky economy tends to make for tentative worker demands, though that didn’t stop grocery employees in California from walking out for five months.

On the other hand, writers are at the heart of the creative process, they’re articulate, and many in Hollywood are sympathetic to their largely unsung status. And the WGA membership almost unanimously supports the demands the union will come to the table with, not only on the DVD question but on health and pension issues, rewrites, and jurisdiction over “scripted” reality shows.

As for the congloms, their fortunes variously slumped during the sag in the stock market over the last three years, but lately have perked up. Most media stocks have rebounded from their depressed levels of three years ago, as have revenues and profits.

As they sit down for the first time April 5, the two sides have vowed, however poles apart they are, to be polite. How long that stance will last is anyone’s guess.

It’s probably just posturing, but the producers claim they see no logic in raising any of the residual rates that they pay talent, including writers. The scribes, though, are looking longingly at the booming DVD sector: Right now, per an accord unchanged since 1985, scribes get on average just a nickel per DVD sold.

Newly minted WGA West prexy Daniel Petrie Jr., who will lead the charge on behalf of the scribes, threw down the gauntlet last week, disputing studio assertions of falling profits.

“There is no one from Wall Street to the studios to the North Pole or the South Pole that believes the American entertainment industry is losing money,” he said. “It is making record profits. Writers are simply going into these negotiations asking for their fair share.”

His counterpart at the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, veteran negotiator Nicholas Counter, will argue that revenues from DVD don’t offset the deficits producers are stuck with on TV shows nor the razor-thin margins they operate with on the movie front.

But writers are likely to have no sympathy since the congloms own both studios and networks.

“Just because one side of a conglom is robbing the other — robbing Peter to pay Paul, as it were — they still get to keep the money. Why should we take it on the chin?” one writer complained.

The last time the writers went out on strike, in 1988, the big issue was residuals for syndicated dramas. The walkout lasted five months, and the town was turned topsy-turvy, resulting in a delayed fall season, a dearth of film development, even an Oscarcast with a half-written script.

(This time, a short-term walkout wouldn’t derail the biz: Networks could rely on reality shows to replace scripted dramas and sitcoms for the fall, while on the film side, a strike would mainly mean foregoing a script polish here and a third draft there.)

Few, if any, expect this year’s negotiations to arrive at such loggerheads, but showbizzers will be watching closely how the DVD debate spins.

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