Christopher Keyser has already faced one big disappointment in his first five months of his tenure as the 30th president of the Writers Guild of America West — last month’s stalling of Hollywood anti-piracy legislation on Capitol Hill.
“Piracy’s a very real issue for our members because it takes money right out of our pockets,” he notes. “Unfortunately, the industry lost control of what had been a very populist message when it became more about censorship.”It’s unusual for the guild to find itself on the opposing side of a censorship debate, but because piracy is such a bread-and-butter issue to members, Keyser said it’s clear the industry will have to regroup but continue the fight against copyright-infringing activity.
As the guild prepares to honor some of its leading lights at Sunday’s Writers Guild Awards, Keyser says he’s acutely aware of how tough economic times have taken a toll on members who aren’t marquee names.
“It’s a tough time for all middle-class people,” he says. “The real issue for us is how to get through what continues to be a very difficult economic period.”
For that reason, he came out in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement early in his tenure — during the first week of October — and pledged that the WGA West would continue to be vocal on issues that impact writers and reach out directly to politicians via its political action committee.
He’s also promised that the guild leadership will evaluate the effectiveness of contract enforcement in such areas as late pay, free rewrites and “sweepstakes” pitching without pay.
Keyser says the board’s already laying the groundwork for negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on a successor deal to the current master contract, which expires in May 2014. He was part of the board during the last negotiations cycle when the guild quietly reached a deal in early 2011 — a sharp contrast to the previous round of negotiations, which featured a 100-day strike in 2007-08.
WGA East president Michael Winship, who’s in his third term, asserts that the outreach to members is well under way. “When you’re getting ready for a negotiating cycle, you need to know about your constituents’ concerns — such as parity in cable with the broadcast networks and late pay,” Winship says.
Keyser’s not venturing any kind of prediction as to how the negotiations might go when they start, noting that the key is to set bargaining priorities as a result of “consistent communication” with the membership.
He’s pleased that the board approved giving the late blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo screenplay credit for the 1953 film “Roman Holiday” in late December. And he reiterates that the org isn’t going to change its policy of limiting eligibility for the WGA screen awards to films produced under guild jurisdiction — even in the face of complaints by such members as Christopher Nolan who urged, during his acceptance speech for the WGA award for writing “Inception,” that the guild loosen the rules.
“The WGA is the ultimate arbiter of screenplay credit, so the awards have to reflect that,” Keyser says. “It’s really a part of who we are.”
Both Keyser and Winship remain optimistic for expanding guild jurisdiction. The WGA East has scored some successes in organizing non-fiction cable TV at Atlas, Lion, ITV and Optimem.
“We had a pretty good year,” Winship said. “We did pretty well at the AMPTP negotiations and with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And we signed the Onion News Network along with new deals in new media and digital — whose writers very much want to be part of the guild.”
Winship, who’s in his third term as president, agrees with Keyser that the leadership is focused on economic issues.
“Our members tell us that they’re concerned about achieving cable parity with the broadcast networks and late payments. When you’re starting to get ready for a contract cycle, it’s crucial that you do so with a complete knowledge of our members’ priorities. So we had a year of reaching out.” n
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