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Writers Guild Contract Negotiations Starting Remotely Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

WGA Agents Contract Tug of War
Gary Musgrave for Variety

Hollywood studios and leaders of the Writers Guild of America are starting master contract negotiations Monday on a remote basis due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Representatives for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said Monday that the current global health crisis underlines the need for a deal to be reached. The two sides are facing a June 30 expiration of the current film and TV contract.

“The AMPTP’s goal is to reach a fair and reasonable agreement with writers that will provide much-needed stability as the industry recovers from the devastating impact of COVID-19,” the AMPTP said. “More importantly, we want to enable those who have suffered the most from the effects of the virus to return to work without the threat of further interruption to their livelihoods.”

The WGA’s negotiating committee sent a message to members on Monday morning: “As you know, we usually lay out our bargaining agenda during membership meetings.  Since many of those meetings had to be cancelled this year, we’ll be sending a series of emails over the next two weeks with an overview of the issues we will be addressing on your behalf with the AMPTP during May and June. The topics will include: streaming compensation and residuals, benefit contributions, inclusion and equity, workplace protections including against sexual harassment, and specific screenwriter, comedy-variety and TV writer issues. Thank you for your support as we go to the virtual bargaining table. We are thinking of you all.”

The negotiations are taking launching after two start dates were vacated — first, on March 23, which was ditched when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted those plans. On May 11, the arrangement was delayed again due to “scheduling” issues that were never explained.

The WGA talks were also nearly derailed last month when WGA lead negotiator David Young called the AMPTP “despicable” over its refusal to ease eligibility for health insurance for members who would lose their coverage later this year. Sources have told Variety that pension and health benefits are a key issue for the WGA at the talks. The Directors Guild of America achieved a 1% gain in employer contributions to its pension plan in its successor master contract, ratified last month by members.

The WGA negotiations are also taking place while SAG-AFTRA is still holding its master contract negotiations after three weeks of talks. Negotiations with the performers union and the AMPTP began on April 27 — also on a remote basis and with both sides pledging to adhere to a news blackout until the talks are completed. The SAG-AFTRA contract also has a June 30 expiration.

According to sources, the other key issues for the WGA include:

  • Improvements in the payment structure for junior writers in “mini rooms,” in which small groups of writers work on a few series scripts in lieu of a produced pilot.
  • Improvements in streaming residuals for made-for-subscription video on demand, or SVOD, and reuse. This was a key gain in the new DGA contract, which included a 50% increase in original SVOD series residuals and provided that for feature-length SVOD projects budgeted at least $13 million made for a service with 20 million or more domestic subscribers, the residual will increase by 29% in the first year of the contract.
  • Gains in the way “span” work-term issues are calculated and compensated for writers working for extended stretches on limited series with only six to 12 episodes per season, rather than the traditional 22 episodes. The WGA is also hoping to shorten  the amount of time that writers can be contractually bound to those shows. Span issues were a key component of reaching a deal in the 2017 negotiations.

The WGA has not raised the issue of holding a strike authorization vote among its 15,000 members. Three years ago, the WGA held a strike authorization vote a month after negotiations with the AMPTP started and 96% of members who were eligible to vote — those who had worked under AMPTP contract during the past six years and those with 15 or more years of participation in the pension plan.

Negotiators for the WGA and AMPTP reached a deal in May, 2017, less than an hour before the contract expired in a face-to-face session with more than 100 participants at the AMPTP headquarters in Sherman Oaks, Ca. If the WGA had walked out, it would have been the guild’s seventh strike since 1960. The most recent strike was an acrimonious 100-day work stoppage, fueled by the WGA’s demand for new media residuals and jurisdiction. That strike started Nov. 5, 2007, and ended Feb. 12, 2008.

The WGA negotiating committee also sent a video message to members from co-chairs Betsy Thomas, Michele Mulroney and Shawn Ryan, who promised that more specific information would be disseminating in the coming weeks.

“Please remember, the only source of reliable information during these negotiations is your guild,” Ryan said. “Over the next few weeks, we will send out information about the issues we want to address and gains we want to make through our bargaining proposals. We will also let you know when there are significant developments during negotiations. But even when you aren’t hearing from us, please know that your negotiating committee and guild staff are committed to getting the best possible contract.”