Biz Holds Breath as WGA, AMPTP Return to Bargaining Table on Tuesday

As the industry awaits the results of the WGA’s strike authorization vote, the real test of whether the biz should brace for labor unrest will come on Tuesday when the guild and the major studios return to the bargaining table.

In the week since the Writers Guild of America and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers suspended contract negotiations, the WGA has held membership meetings in Los Angeles and New York to update writers on the state of the talks and to rally votes for the authorization. Amid all this activity, there is a growing sense among plugged-in people on both sides of the negotiations that the pathway to a deal is starting to emerge.

As one well-connected showrunner put it: “Unless someone on either side does something stupid, there should be a deal to make.”

Industry sources said the tone and approach taken by both camps in Tuesday’s meeting will be crucial. The AMPTP side hopes that WGA negotiators will be ready to engage in the nitty-gritty of bargaining and compromise once the guild is formally armed with its most potent weapon — the ability to call a strike against Hollywood film and TV studios.

The board of directors of the WGA West and council of WGA East need an affirmative strike authorization vote of eligible members before those governing bodies implement a work stoppage. The strike authorization voting period began April 19 and ended at noon PT today.

There is little doubt that the WGA’s first strike authorization vote in 10 years will be passed by members eligible to vote, namely those who have worked under the AMPTP contract during the past six years and those with 15 or more years in the pension plan. The only real suspense regarding the vote is the margin of support and level of turnout. In 2007, the vote generated record turnout of 5,507 ballots cast with 90% supporting the strike authorization. The guild went out for 100 days between November 2007-February 2008.

The WGA hopes that the strike threat and ticking clock to the May 1 contract expiration deadline will give the guild maximum leverage for gains on its biggest priorities. The AMPTP offered movement in the package it put on the table April 13 in the area of adjusting compensation terms for writers working on short-order series. WGA sources characterized it as a small improvement. With the strike authorization vote looming, the sides made little headway in discussions on April 17 before the talks were suspended until April 25.

The other burning issue is the need for increased employer contributions to the WGA health plan, which has run a deficit during most of the past few years given the spiraling cost of health care. The AMPTP’s last offer was said to be in the neighborhood of a $60 million influx with a commitment from the WGA to squeeze out $10 million in savings from tighter management of the plan. The WGA is said to be seeking around $80 million-$85 million with a commitment to find $6 million in savings.

The big move on the short-order series front was a response by the studios to the WGA’s concerns about the lost income and long production timetables for many cable and streaming shows, which produce fewer episodes than the traditional 22- or 24-episode seasons for broadcast network shows.

Low- and mid-level writers can find themselves working longer periods for less money on shows that take many months or even more than a year to produce 10 or 13 episodes, and still be held up by exclusivity clauses from seeking additional employment. It amounts to a big unexpected downside of the Peak TV era.

The AMPTP has proposed defining that the “span” of employment on episodic TV is 2.6 weeks per episode for writers who are paid by the episode and do not have overall studio deals. Writers who make less than $300,000 per season, when per-episode fees and script fees are combined, cannot be kept off the market on exclusive holds to a series for a period that exceeds 2.6 weeks for every episode.

On a 10-episode series order, that amounts to 26 weeks, or half a year, for writers making less than $30,000 per episode. The span definition is believed to slide up or down depending on the number of episodes ordered per season.

Reps for the WGA and AMPTP declined to comment amid the press blackout that both sides agreed to abide by during negotiations. The sides are set to reconvene Tuesday morning at AMPTP headquarters in Sherman Oaks.

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