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Scribes give the contract a thumbs up

Writers Guild ratifies three-year contract

Showbiz writers have solidly endorsed a three-year contract with studios and nets, with 74% of scribes voting to ratify the deal.

Leaders of the Writers Guild of America had urged members to approve the deal, which includes a $37 million gain in health plan contributions and $58 million in total increases. But it contains no gains in two areas in which the industry has racked up impressive growth — DVD residuals and reality TV — and no agreement on residuals for Internet download sales.

The vote, released Tuesday, was 1,660 for approval and 587 against. The approval rate was significantly smaller than three years ago, when 92% of those voting backed the deal.

Hammered out Oct. 13, deal is retroactive to Nov. 1 and places WGA members under a contract for the first time in nearly seven months. The previous contract expired May 2, although nearly all of its provisions have remained in effect.

Proponents claimed the deal is the best the guild could get even with a strike and called it the richest WGA pact ever with a 40% hike over the previous deal signed in 2001. But opponents have asserted the new pact sets dangerous precedents on residuals and jurisdiction over reality TV.

Both WGA West president Daniel Petrie Jr. and WGA East prexy Herb Sargent admitted that parts of the deal were a disappointment.

Hoping for more

“I am very pleased that the guild’s membership has voted so strongly in favor of ratifying our new contract,” Petrie said. “Even though what we were able to achieve at the bargaining table fell short of many of our hopes, it is nevertheless a very good deal, one to be proud of, and my congratulations and thanks go out to all those who worked so hard for so long to bring it to fruition.”

Petrie said he was pleasantly surprised by the support given the calls by members for a no vote to express displeasure with the contract without forcing writers to continue working without a contract. “I think there was some hope for an approval by a single vote,” he added.

The WGA West board endorsed the agreement last month by a 16-1 margin while the WGA East Council gave it a tepid 10-6 endorsement. WGA West members supported the deal by a vote of 1,420 for and 421 against; backing was less enthusiastic among WGA East members, with 240 for and 166 against.

“This ratification concludes the 2004 MBA negotiations, which resulted in a contract that protected our health plan but fell short of our goals,” Sargent said. “We will continue to seek gains in DVD residuals, jurisdiction, and emerging technologies.”

Several members of the negotiating committee have asserted the WGA wasn’t aggressive enough and didn’t make enough of an effort to coordinate its strategy with the DGA, SAG and AFTRA. The two performers unions are expected to begin negotiations on a film-TV pact next month.

The WGA walked away from the table in June when the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers offered a $32 million package, telling its members they needed to wait for the DGA and SAG to negotiate. The Directors Guild of America, which ratified a three-year deal last month, asserted after its negotiations in September that the AMPTP would not budge on the DVD issue without a lengthy strike and perhaps not at all.

Had the WGA members turned down the deal, Petrie said, it could have led either to a lockout by companies or a strike by the WGA. “Had we gone back to negotiations, it’s quite possible the AMPTP would have replaced the new deal with the offer from June and forced the guild to strike,” he added.

A rejection would have been a surprise but not out of the question, given that the WGA’s 1997 deal was turned down by 16 votes, forcing a re-negotiation that wasn’t settled until the next year.

With the DGA and WGA having concluded deals with the AMPTP back to back, the spotlight now shifts to SAG and AFTRA. The performers unions, which face a June 30 expiration of their current film-TV contract, have singled out residuals, health, pension and background performers as key issues.

“The template is there for a deal for SAG and AFTRA but they also have be left to solve their own issues,” said WGA West exec director John McLean.

McLean also credited Petrie with stabilizing and focusing the WGA West during a turbulent year. In addition to the negotiations, 2004 has included the resignations of two presidents and a subsequent election supervised by the federal government.

The WGA said other highlights of the deal included the following:

  •  The health plan, which had been forced to cut benefits last year, will maintain current benefits with a six-month reserve by the end of the contract in 2007. The companies agreed to boost their contribution rates from 7.5% to 8.5%, with a potential for additional increases in the third year of the contract.

  • The AMPTP will raise the annual cap for theatrical motion picture health fund contributions from $200,000 up to $250,000.

  • The guild and AMPTP will recommend to the Writers Guild Pension Fund trustees an increase in the contribution limit to $205,000 per company and an increase in the benefit limit to $135,000.

  • Minimums will increase 3% across the board, boosting payments for made-for-video sequels of theatrical releases and creative-rights advances in areas of late-pay and free rewrites.

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