WGA and Studios Move Closer to Deal After Long Night of Negotiations

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Elliot Stokes for Variety

The Writers Guild of America and AMPTP are moving closer to a deal for a new master film and TV contract after a long night of virtual negotiations held in part via videoconference calls.

The most recent contract extension between the scribers and the studios expired at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if negotiations were still going on after the clock struck midnight. Sources said the sides were pushing hard to come to an agreement by the contract expiration deadline but were also prepared to continue talks later on Wednesday.

Representatives for the WGA and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers declined to comment.

Sources close to the situation said the talks had not been particularly contentious over the past few days and that the WGA and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers were not that far apart on most items on the table. Multiple sources said the biggest sticking point was coming to terms on an adjustment of WGA rules for options and exclusivity that writers are often forced to accept when signing on for TV series, particularly those produced for streaming services.

Those options can become a big handicap for writers who work on shows that have short episode orders and long hiatus periods between seasons. So-called short order series with seasonal episode counts as low as six or eight can be hard for writers to juggle because the overall rate of per-episode pay is low compared to shows with higher episode counts per season. During the last WGA minimum basic agreement negotiations in 2017, the guild secured a big adjustment in how the per-episode pay scale was calculated for scribes making less than $280,000 per season.

Talks between the WGA and AMPTP launched six weeks ago on a remote basis due to the COVID-19 pandemic after two start dates were vacated. Representatives were facing a June 30 expiration of the current film and TV contract — and the lack of a deal had prompted worries among studios that a strike could be in the works if no agreement is reached.

But the economic wallop of the pandemic cost the WGA the leverage of a strike threat. Rank and file guild members were not expected to embrace a work stoppage at a time when 40 million-plus Americans were have been abruptly thrown out of work because of the coronavirus lockdown.

The WGA negotiations were originally scheduled to commence on March 23 but were pushed back to May 11 and then May 18 as the coronavirus upended business as usual and brought production to a virtual standstill. And before talks started, the expiration of its current three-year deal was extended for two months to June 30.

After negotiations started, the WGA negotiating committee sent out eight messages to members between May 20 and May 4  detailing a wide array of demands including higher script fees, parental leave, the first-ever foreign box office residuals, higher streaming residuals, improved pension and health contributions and eliminating free rewrites. In effect, the messages replaced the guild leadership’s usual technique of disclosing the details of its demands at a series of membership meetings — which could no longer be held.

Fears of a WGA breakdown had been based on it being the last Hollywood union to strike. In November 2007, the WGA walked out in a bitter dispute that was mostly over new media compensation and stayed out for 100 days before a deal was reached. By the time that happened the shutdown was estimated to have cost the L.A. economy more than $3 billion.