Informal WGA talks set to begin

Sides will meet as early as Tuesday

The communications impasse between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood’s majors has finally ended.

Following Thursday’s deal between the DGA and the AMPTP, insiders said top execs of the entertainment congloms reached out to WGA leaders.

Those conversations are expected to lead to an informal face-to-face session this week, possibly as early as Tuesday. It would mark the first sitdown between the two sides since AMPTP reps broke off the last round of formal bargaining on Dec. 7.

Participants will likely include, for the guild, WGA West prexy Patric Verrone, exec director David Young and negotiations committee head John Bowman and, on the AMPTP side, News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin and Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger.

Informal talks would replicate the strategy the AMPTP followed with the DGA, during which Chernin and Iger met with a handful of guild leaders to hash out numerous issues in an effort to make the formal bargaining sessions more productive.

Some prominent members of the WGA have stepped up efforts to prod WGA leaders to embrace the terms of the DGA pact. Former WGA West prexy John Wells told Daily Variety that the gains achieved by the DGA made for “a genuinely landmark deal” that surpassed his expectations.

But while debate about the DGA deal as well as the AMPTP-WGA negotiation strategies raged during the weekend on strike-centric blogs and websites, there was no certainty about the WGA leadership’s reaction to the terms reached by the DGA. WGA reps would not comment Sunday beyond earlier statements made by Verrone that WGA leaders could not evaluate the merits of the DGA deal until they’d seen the entire contract (Daily Variety, Jan. 18).

It was unclear if DGA reps have made more specific info available to the WGA beyond the details made public on Thursday. Industry vets noted that the entire master-agreement document is probably still being written by the lawyers, though the pertinent details about Internet jurisdiction and new-media compensation had to be down on paper prior to Thursday’s announcement.

 The DGA deal lifted the town’s hopes that the WGA can reach an agreement in time for a picket-free Oscarcast on Feb. 24. On Friday, some industry execs were already penciling in possible dates to resume production of shuttered TV skeins. Organizers of the WGA’s 3-month-old strike, however, made a point of instructing members not to offer opinions on the DGA deal to the media during Friday’s picketing at NBC in Burbank.

To a picket, those making the loop outside “The Tonight Show” studio on Alameda Avenue on Friday afternoon said they would wait to hear WGA leaders’ evaluation of the deal. But many expressed frustration that the AMPTP had not been forthcoming earlier with the kind of financial terms to which it has agreed with the DGA. The WGA bargaining sessions that began in July would have proceeded much differently had the AMPTP put similar terms on the table for writers, scribes said.

“Why didn’t they offer this to the writers?” asked screenwriter Tom Flynn, who was among about 200 or so people who turned up at WGA’s sole picket site on Friday. Another picket, TV writer Jim Adler, noted that the DGA deal for paid downloads yielded less than a third of the royalty rate sought by the WGA, and he was skeptical about the 17-day window of free Web streaming of programs before residual fees kick in.

Those sentiments and other concerns were said to have been privately voiced by WGA leaders following the DGA announcement.

The WGA’s negotiating committee met Saturday to discuss the developments, and the WGA West board was expected to hold a session Tuesday.

Even if WGA brass were inclined to accept the DGA deal terms on new media, the scribe tribe still has some writer-centric issues to hammer out with the majors, notably in the area of “separated rights,” or how writers get paid when their film and TV creations are adapted for ancillary markets like comicbooks or novelizations.

Amid a possible opening with the majors, the WGA confirmed Friday that it has signed four more interim deals, bringing the number to 10 since David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants inked the first agreement three weeks ago. The new pacts are with Mandate Pictures, Bob Yari’s Sixth Floor Literary Properties, Overt Operations/Anonymous Content and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.

Meanwhile, screenwriter Craig Mazin, who has emerged as a voice of moderate WGA members through commentaries posted on his Artful Writer blog, initiated an email campaign to encourage members to pressure WGA leaders to accept the DGA pact “as a deal we can live with.”

Scribes have demonstrated impressive unity during the strike, but in recent weeks, prominent screenwriters and some showrunners have held private gatherings to voice concerns that the WGA’s hardline stance and fiery rhetoric are getting in the way of efforts to end the strike. If WGA leaders don’t make progress in the contract talks in the wake of the DGA deal, it’s likely the Writers Guild will face an “uprising” among many of its most successful members, industry insiders said.

Wells, a veteran showrunner and exec producer of “ER,” did not hesitate to offer his analysis of the DGA pact on Friday.

“I’ve been involved in negotiations for 20 years. This is the best deal I’ve seen that anyone’s been able to negotiate,” said Wells, who has been criticized by some in the guild for not pushing harder in negotiations during his 1999-2001 tenure as WGA West prexy.

In a letter widely circulated on the Web during the weekend, Wells pointed to the importance of the DGA’s gains in getting the majors to open up their books for unprecedented review by the guild.

“This has never happened before,” Wells wrote. “It will allow the DGA to analyze whether the terms of this new deal are working and if the revenues are being properly reported.  This is another extraordinary aspect of this deal and a cause for celebration.”

(Michael Fleming and Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)