Will the WGA hold the Oscars hostage as it revives its contract talks with the majors? That was a big question left unanswered Tuesday morning after the unveiling of the 80th annual Academy Award nominations.
But chances for a picket-free Oscarcast received a major boost at mid-afternoon, when the Writers Guild of America announced it had withdrawn contract proposals demanding jurisdiction over reality and animation — both nonstarters for the majors — and agreed to continue meeting informally with moguls.
The WGA’s olive branch came a few hours after guild leaders held an informameeting with top execs; the specific goal was to work out enough details for official negotiations to resume for the first time since Dec. 7. News Corp. president Peter Chernin and Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger attended the Tuesday confab, which came five days after the Directors Guild of America reached its contract pact with the majors.
The eight top moguls in the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers had opened the door last week to resumed WGA negotiations after announcing the DGA pact. On Tuesday, the WGA and AMPTP issued a joint statement saying both sides will adhere to a news blackout and meet again today.
With the DGA deal paving the way for new talks for the writers, the Feb. 24 Oscarcast has become a kind of unofficial deadline for the AMPTP and WGA to come to terms — or settle in for a prolonged war that could also enlist the Screen Actors Guild, whose contract is up June 30.
Tuesday’s only definitive statement on the WGA’s handling of the Oscars, in light of its renewed communication with the majors, came from WGA East president Michael Winship. He promised the Feb. 24 kudocast would be considered struck work unless the WGA has ended its strike.
“Until the Writers Guild has a deal with the conglomerates — the studios and networks — our intention is to boycott the Oscars, to picket the Oscars and to ask our fellow union members at the Screen Actors Guild to boycott the Oscars,” Winship said. “That’s our plan.”
Winship made the statement at a WGA rally at Gramercy Park in Manhattan, attended by more than three dozen award winners as a way of drawing attention to the three-month strike with the message “Awards are nice, but we’d rather the writers get a fair contract.”
WGA leaders are facing mounting pressure from members to act swiftly in their talks with the majors and bring an end to the strike. Since the DGA deal was unveiled Thursday, WGA has cooled off its anti-conglom rhetoric and offered minimal comment about whether the advances contained in the DGA deal — particularly in new media — are sufficient to be mimicked in a WGA deal.
WGA West president Patric Verrone has stressed that the guild needs to examine the DGA deal closely before fully responding to it. And in a letter sent to members Tuesday, Verrone and Winship stressed that writers need to cool down the fiery rhetoric during the talks with moguls.
“We have responded favorably to the invitation from the AMPTP to enter into informal talks that will help establish a reasonable basis for returning to negotiations,” the duo said. “During this period we have agreed to a complete news blackout. We are grateful for this opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion with industry leaders that we hope will lead to a contract. We ask that all members exercise restraint in their public statements during this critical period.”
Verrone and Winship — who have long insisted that the key issues to be negotiated involve new media — also disclosed in the letter that they’ve taken reality and animation off the table in order to improve the odds of making a deal as soon as possible.
“In order to make absolutely clear our commitment to bringing a speedy conclusion to negotiations, we have decided to withdraw our proposals on reality and animation,” they said in a statement. “Our organizing efforts to achieve guild representation in these genres for writers will continue.”
The WGA’s efforts to organize reality met with so little success that the guild’s strike rules contained no prohibition on its members working in that sector — an indication that the WGA would eventually take the issue off the table (Daily Variety, Oct. 24).
Another indication of a thaw in the deep freeze of the WGA’s relationship with the moguls came with the guild’s announcement that it won’t picket the Feb. 10 Grammys, to be telecast on CBS. It’s understood the development led to a cordial exchange between CBS topper Leslie Moonves and WGA West exec director David Young.
Yet another positive sign came as word spread Tuesday that top entertainment lawyer Alan Wertheimer has been tapped by the WGA to aid in its talks with the AMPTP congloms on several key issues, including hammering out the definition of “distributor’s gross” as a basis for determining residual fees. Wertheimer was a prime player in negotiating the WGA’s interim agreement for David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, which Wertheimer’s firm represents.
The WGA resumed full-scale picketing in Los Angeles on Tuesday, with hundreds of guild members and supporters outside Paramount as part of an effort to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.
At the Oscar nominations announcement at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, shrugs generally greeted questions about the effect of the writers strike on the Oscar telecast; Academy officials continue to develop a kudocast without scribes.
“A month is a long time away — look at Iowa,” said Gil Cates, producer of this year’s Oscars, referring to the ups and downs of this year’s presidential race. “There will be lots of clips — we have a long history, 80 years, to explore.”
Until the announcement of the nominations, Cates and his crew had been working on the set design and construction, hiring musicians and other backstage personnel. Work on production numbers and film packages began Tuesday, he said.
Academy officials shared Cates’ enthusiasm, if not his optimism, speculating that the show will be heavy on clips and low on star power if the writers strike is still in force on Feb. 24. Cates was also the head of the DGA’s negotiating committee.
One Acad exec expressed uncertainty on exactly how much can be done on the show without violating the WGA contract. The ABC telecast will be able to use clips of films, but instead of being free, “They’ll be costing us a lot,” the exec said.
In another development, the WGA already has started crunching the numbers in the DGA deal, and UnitedHollywood.com, operated by WGA strike captains, posted a link Tuesday to the WGA site, showing comparisons with the DGA deal. The posting was taken down shortly thereafter, with the explanation that it should not have been announced.
“The document we were linking to was an internal working paper, and the figures were premature,” the site said. “Since the comprehensive version of the DGA deal is still not available, final figures can’t yet be accurately calculated. We don’t feel that it’s productive to the discussion to post until the figures are accurate.”
The DGA does not release calculations of its deals. The document that was posted showed that the WGA’s calculation of the DGA advances amounted to $32.1 million, with $28.5 million of that coming via increases in minimum rates.
The WGA said in the document that the AMPTP’s last offer on Dec. 7 contained $23.1 million in gains, offset by as much as $100 million in rollbacks from allowing streaming of TV shows to be labeled as “promotional.” The guild also estimated it would gain $122.5 million if the terms of its 10 interim deals were applied to all signatory companies.
(Phil Gallo and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)