Call it the drama-free WGA contract negotiation.

The Writers Guild of America surprised the biz Sunday evening by informing members that it has reached a tentative agreement for a three-year master contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The pact is the successor to the bitterly fought contract set in 2008 after a 100-day strike that crippled the film and TV biz. News of the handshake deal comes six weeks before the May 1 expiration of the previous contract, which is a rarity for the scribe tribe. The previous two rounds of contract talks before the strike, in 2001 and 2004, went past the contract expiration date, stirring industry jitters about a work stoppage

Key gains cited by the WGA include a hike in pension contributions from employers to 7.5% of total compensation paid to scribes, up from 6%, and a strong 20% increase in pay TV residuals, which has long been a sore spot for scribes. The pact also calls for a 2% increase in minimums.

Pension fund gains have been the key concession point for the AMPTP in its latest round of guild negotiations. The Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Directors Guild of America garnered commensurate pension fund hikes in contracts ratified by their respective members in January. The issue is crucial to the guilds because of the financial hit those plans incurred during the economic meltdown that followed on the heels of the strike and because of general market volatility.

On the downside, WGA’s network primetime residual rates will be frozen for the three-year term of the contract. Network primetime residuals have often been a flash point in WGA talks, but in fact the volume of primetime network reruns has dropped precipitously in recent years as DVR and online viewing has gained steam.

The WGA also agreed, as SAG and DGA did, to eliminate of the first-class travel provision when writers are required to fly to sets. In the message to members, WGA negotiators also acknowledged that they were unable to achieve the goals of expanded jurisdiction in digital platforms.

The WGA began the negotiations on March 3 with a long list of demands, including the perennial focus on increasing homevid and basic cable residual rates. Those were seen as non-starters for the majors from the start, but it was still a remarkably rhetoric-free three-week bargaining period. There was no overwhelmingly galvanizing issue for scribes as their was in 2007 when the guild drew a line in the sand over residuals for new media. And the leadership style of the WGA West has changed with John Wells as prexy in contrast to the more fiery approach of Patric Verrone, who remains a WGA West board member.

The WGA negotiating committee, which notified members of the pact via email, was co-chaired by John Bowman and Billy Ray. Bowman held the same role in the 2007-08 negotiations and ultimately played a pivotal role in settling the strike. The committee member also praised the work of WGA West exec director David Young and his staff.

The committee said it would meet Monday to formally endorse the deal and send it to the WGA West board and WGA East Council for approval.

If those panels OK the new deal, it will then be submitted for ratification to the members.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

The WGAW’s message to members:

March 20, 2011

Dear WGAW Member,

We are pleased to inform you that our negotiators have concluded a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Talks began on March 3 and ended today at 3:30 p.m. The three-year deal features significant gains in contributions to our pension fund, improves payments in Pay TV residuals, increases our minimums, and takes steps to address important workplace issues for screen and television writers. Your Negotiating Committee will meet tomorrow to officially vote on sending the tentative agreement to the WGAW Board of Directors and WGAE Council for approval prior to member ratification.

Highlights of the tentative agreement include:

Pension Plan Increases: The contribution rate to our pension plan will increase by 1.5%, from 6% to 7.5% of applicable compensation and residuals. In this time of financial volatility this increase goes a long way toward allowing the fund to meet its obligations for the foreseeable future. We will also have the option to shift 1/2% from the increase in minimums in the second and third years of the contract to further support the fund. This is a necessary safety measure should continued volatility in the financial markets require its implementation. These two provisions combined make as much as 33% more funding available to the pension fund each year.

Increased Payments in Pay TV: The annual reuse payments for one-half-hour and one-hour programs in Pay TV will increase by 20%.

Increased Minimums: Minimum scale rates will increase 2% per year.

Workplace Issues: Meetings of the Committees on the Professional Status of Writers for Screen and TV (CPSW) took place during these negotiations. The meetings provided a forum for writers to discuss a wide range of issues with film and television’s top executives. In screen, the topics included sweepstakes pitching and one-step deals. Additionally, contract provisions have been added that require each studio to send to its creative executives a bulletin stating clearly that spec writing is not to be condoned; and that each studio will facilitate an annual meeting with its creative executives and screenwriters from the CPSW. In television the topics discussed included product integration, promotional messages that appear on top of program content, and limiting writer employment option periods on series. Additionally, contract provisions have been added that increase funding for the Showrunner Training Program, provide acknowledgement that studio/network notes should be given in a timely fashion, and require each company to facilitate an annual meeting with its creative executives and television writers from the CPSW.

As part of this overall package the Guilds agreed to several concessions. Network Primetime residuals will now be frozen at the current rates for the term of the new contract. Business class and coach air travel will now be allowed for certain short flights. Promotional uses of clips in new media have been expanded slightly to include certain consumer pay formats.

Unfortunately, there are a few crucial areas where we were unable to make progress during this negotiation. Minimum compensation and residual rates in Basic Cable remain far too low and must still be addressed. We were also unable to clarify our jurisdiction over the rapidly evolving digital production technologies represented by motion capture. Both of these important issues will require our continued attention.

Additional details of the new contract will be included in the ratification mailing.

We wish to thank our talented professional staff led by WGAW Executive Director and chief negotiator David Young. This agreement could not have been reached without their tireless efforts on behalf of all writers.

    Negotiating Committee Members

John Bowman (Committee Co-Chair)

Billy Ray (Committee Co-Chair)

Chris Albers

Alfredo Barrios, Jr.

Andrew Bergman

John Brancato

Adam Brooks

Patti Carr

Tim Carvell

Jonathan Fernandez

Katherine Fugate

David Goodman

Chip Johannessen

Warren Leight

Damon Lindelof

Julie Martin

Ron Moore

Jeff Nathanson

Jeremy Pikser

Shawn Ryan

Melissa Salmons

Stephen Schiff

Mike Scully

Thania St. John

Steve Zaillian