Writers Guild Contract Talks Resume

By Christian
April 18, 2001 - 12:58 PM

There's a volatile atmosphere in Tinseltown at the moment, with the expiration dates of the contracts for both writers and actors rapidly approaching. Not only does the possibility of the impending strikes threaten production of Series V and Trek X, but they also have the ability to turn Hollywood into a virtual ghost town.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as representatives of both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) returned to the negotiating tables yesterday in an attempt to reach an amicable solution before the expiration of their film-TV contract on May 1 (story).

"The process for ongoing negotiations was discussed and various sub-committees were established," the WGA said on their website. "The sub-committees will focus on diversity, animation writing, character payments, three-person teams, TV low budget and the arbitration process."

The negotiations, which are expected to continue right through to the contract expiration date of May 1, are fraught with difficulty as neither side wishes to stand down their current position. In particular, there is a $100 million gap between the offers of the two parties, one which is proving increasingly difficulty to bridge. "I'm concerned that both sides don't have much room to negotiate," a long-serving labor executive told Variety.

One issue over which there previously seemed no compromise, that of possessory credit on the part of the directors, may have been set aside as a matter for negotiation. Previously, the WGA had been trying to achieve a reduction in the number of 'film by' credits for directors, because they felt that they marginalised the work of writers and others on a film project.

It now seems, however, that the WGA may be content to remove this sensitive issue from the discussions, because their media campaign has achieved its objective of diminishing the credibility of the 'film by' title in the eyes of their audience.

Other issues on the discussion table, as previously reported , include the issue of residual fees for sales to foreign markets, video and DVDs, and the smaller networks Fox, the WB, and of particular importance to Trek, UPN. In addition, writers are lobbying for greater access to production meetings, cast read-throughs and actual filming of their work. The WGA stresses that they are only trying to enable writers to work more easily within the production framework.

Residuals in particular are vital for keeping writers above water during times of unemployment. Although there are a small minority of writers who command massive salaries in Hollywood, approximately half of the Guild's members may be out of work each year, and a quarter of those working earn less than $30,000 a year. Hence, residuals are an essential part of their livelihood.

Both sides have agreed to support a media blackout for the duration of the talks in order to maintain focus on the proceedings. Screen Actors Guild chief negotiator Brian Walton even went so far as to blame the media for the tensions in the entertainment industry. Michael Cieply, in an article at Inside.com, quoted Walton as complaining about "the almost mindless mantra by the media and others that strikes are looming."

The WGA also faces declining support from its regular members as the May 1 expiration date approaches. Members of the guild have the option of applying for 'financial core' status, which enables them to resign from full membership, whilst continuing to pay for contract-related activities. The key aspect of this is that members will not face sanctions if they flaunt the stop work order.

John Ireland, a WGA member, has stated that he will apply for 'financial core' status if the strike goes ahead because he doesn't believe that anything will be accomplished. "There are other members also talking about filing for financial core, but they are terrified to discuss it publicly because the WGA is beating the solidarity drum very loudly," Ireland told Variety.

Further tensions are also emerging between the Writers Guild and the unions that represent cameramen, gaffers, grips, drivers and other 'below the line' personnel. Leo Reed, head of the major Hollywood Teamsters Union branch, is reluctant to express any support for the WGA position. "If it comes down to it and the writers have a picket line, knowing that they haven't supported us in the past, and knowing that they'll continue not to support us in the future, I've got a big problem honoring their picket line," he said.

Hopefully, with the resumption of talks after a six week hiatus, the WGA can finally reach an agreement with AMPTP. The Screen Actors Guild have set a start date of May 10 for their negotiations, but this is subject to change. Pressure on this front is also increasing due to the fact that actors may not be able to appear in public to promote projects they're associated with if the SAG strike goes ahead, something that could affect the promotion of new productions such as Series V.

More details on the negotiations can be found in this Reuters report.

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