Writers Could Return by Wednesday

LOS ANGELES Hollywood scribes have written a multi-part denouement for the industry’s epic labor saga.

Industry professionals could get back to work soon, but the Writers Guild of America is insisting on first holding a membership vote before ending the writers’ strike that has lasted more than three months. After membership votes set for both coasts Tuesday night, screenwriters and TV scribes could return to work Wednesday, if the quickie referendum on lifting the strike passes as expected.

Balloting will be in-person — at the WGA Theater in Los Angeles and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in New York — or by proxy. No mail balloting will be conducted because of the expedited procedures.

After those votes are counted, members will be alerted to the results by e-mail, perhaps as late as midnight PST.
 
Once the strike is lifted, the WGA West and WGA East would conduct more conventional membership votes on ratifying their proposed new three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. That process would last 10-12 days, guild officials estimated.

The timeline for lifting the strike should allow the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to use WGA writers in time to help out on its Feb. 24 Oscar telecast — but just barely. And with WGA picketing over, the prospect of an Academy Awards boycott by actors also will be avoided.

The WGA’s tentative contract features terms much like those in the recently secured DGA contract, which is out for a ratification vote through Feb. 20.

Like that pact, the writers’ deal would provide increases in basic compensation of 3-3.5 percent per year, depending on the writing category.

For Internet content, both pacts would double current formulas on film and TV content and apply a first-time residual of 1.2 percent of the distributor gross to streamed film content. Streamed TV content is where the guilds’ agreements differ, with the WGA securing modestly more lucrative terms in the third year of its agreement — though both pacts share a compensation-free window of 17 days from when the show is first streamed over the Internet.

A top media company exec said Sunday that there is a good chance that the AMPTP companies will agree to extend the sweeter new-media terms to the DGA.

“I’m sure there will be some adjustment for the directors to bring them in line with the writers,” the source said. “There shouldn’t be a penalty for getting out in front of something.”

Both guilds won first-time jurisdiction guarantees over new-media content of all sorts. But the writers also have made important strides in the area of “separated rights,” or rights to spin-off projects like TV shows spawned by mobile projects.

At a Sunday news conference, WGAW president Patric Verrone noted some demands never got much traction in the negotiations, including an attempt to win first-time jurisdiction guarantees over animation and reality TV.

“Giving up animation and reality was a heartbreaking issue for me personally,” said Verrone, himself an animation writer. “It was more important that we make a deal that benefited the membership as a whole and that solved the biggest problems in new media.”

 
The hastily called press event followed morning votes to recommend the tentative agreement by the negotiating committee, the WGAW board and the WGAE council.

As for the multistage process to end the strike and approve the contract, Verrone said, “We felt it was important to the members who had been out there on the picket lines that they are part of the decision to lift the restraining order.”

WGAW and WGAE members attending information meetings Saturday at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium and Manhattan’s Crowne Plaza seemed overwhelmingly in favor of accepting the tentative agreement.

The latest developments cap seven months of WGA negotiations that contrasted sharply with those of the DGA, both in timing and tone.

The directors negotiated informally for a period of weeks, then hammered out a collective bargaining agreement in six days. DGA brass boasted about the likelihood of being rewarded for launching early talks on their new contract; WGA leaders acknowledged they were counting on a strategy of negotiating brinksmanship.

Negotiation insiders suggest there were three different phases of the negotiations with respect to who served as the WGA’s key point person in the talks.

In the earliest phase, for at least three months after talks got under way July 16, WGAW exec director David Young dominated WGA presentations at the bargaining table. After the strike started Nov. 5, Verrone became an equal partner to Young in formal and informal discussions with studio reps. And in just the final two weeks of negotiations, WGA negotiating chair John Bowman assumed a much more assertive role, speaking with the most authority on issues key to the final deal terms.

Similarly, on the studio side, AMPTP president Nick Counter was the chief negotiator throughout all of the formal negotiations — until such media bosses as Disney’s Robert Iger, News Corp.’s Peter Chernin and CBS Corp.’s Leslie Moonves assumed the lead in the informal stage of talks that ran through mid- to late January. And for the past two weeks, AMPTP exec vp Carol Lombardini was most hands-on in representing management as final deal terms were drafted.

In announcing terms of their tentative deal early Saturday morning, the presidents of the WGAW and WGAE said they believed they had achieved significant gains in the pact. The guilds jointly have about 12,000 members, with about 10,500 of them affected by the pact, including almost 8,000 WGAW members.