Scribes in overdrive

WGA, producers won't reach deal by deadline

This article was updated at 7:40 p.m.

Get ready for a long weekend.

Indications are strong that showbiz writers won’t have a new deal any time before their current contract expires at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. WGA West prexy Daniel Petrie Jr. said as much in a Member News update issued Thursday.

“Your negotiating committee will be working right up to the deadline in an effort to bring back a deal that we can recommend to the membership,” Petrie wrote in the WGA West newsletter. “In 2001, the negotiations continued several days past the deadline before an acceptable deal emerged, and we are prepared to negotiate past the deadline this time as well, if need be.”

Negotiations, now in their fourth week at WGA West headquarters in Hollywood, remained under a news blackout Thursday. Topics covered by the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers included made-for-pay, one-draft deals, the WB and UPN nets but not the divisive DVD residuals issue.

The town’s fears over a possible WGA strike have grown this week even though the guild appears to have done little to prepare for a work stoppage, such as ask the 12,000 WGA members for a strike authorization.

Once the deadline passes, it’s likely that negotiators will agree to extend the current contract for a few days or as long as bargaining continues. But with the need to resolve the contract before the May 17 upfront meeting between TV networks and advertisers, the patience of AMPTP negotiators is likely to last only a few days.

Though the current anxiety level is rising, it’s no match for the pervasive strike fears that dominated the final days of the 2001 talks. That period capped a six-month stretch in which studios had scrambled to stockpile films and TV programs; moreover, the writers had the additional leverage of the expectation that a work stoppage by the WGA would probably trigger a film-TV strike by SAG and AFTRA two months later.

In February of this year, however, SAG and AFTRA leaders agreed to a one-year extension of the performers unions’ deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. That move deleveraged the WGA’s strike threat but did not entirely eliminate it.

Petrie noted that the newsletter also contained guidelines for use of the WGA West’s strike fund, which totals $10.1 million.

“I want to stress that the publication of strike fund criteria in this issue should not be taken as any kind of saber-rattling on our part,” he said. “Obviously, the potential of a strike underlies any of our negotiations — the fact is so obvious we don’t feel any special need to point it out. All of our options — both traditional options and nontraditional ones — are open, the news blackout remains in force, and we remain focused on concluding an acceptable deal at the bargaining table.”

Petrie also noted that reps of SAG, AFTRA and the Directors Guild of America have been at the bargaining sessions, as is typical in negotiations with the AMPTP. “The WGA is deeply appreciative of their support,” he added.

The lack of resolution has prompted a mix of optimism and pessimism among showbiz writers, agents, execs and attorneys. Most speculation centers on the difficulties faced by negotiators on finding a middle ground between the WGA’s demand for higher DVD residuals and the studios’ insistence that DVD payouts can’t be improved because profits are shrinking amid soaring filmmaking costs and declining revenues in the syndie and foreign TV markets.

The WGA’s demand for jurisdiction over reality shows and animation may be equally difficult to resolve. Studios will resist for cost reasons and insist reality shows are unscripted; the WGA insists that the reality skeins clearly are operating from written outlines.

Reaching an agreement on improved health insurance coverage may also be problematic. SAG and AFTRA obtained a 0.5% hike in producer contributions in their extension agreement and a 1% increase in their new three-year ad contract last year.

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