In contract talks, studios budge but WGA unmoved

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The ball has inched forward; how close things got to the goal line is less clear.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on Thursday advanced new proposals on new-media compensation in its contract with the WGA. Management will be watching for signs of any receptivity to the concessions, but AMPTP negotiators have grown increasingly pessimistic that talks can yield a deal anytime soon, and early signs were that the WGA was underwhelmed by the latest management tweaks.

Only select details were available about the new AMPTP proposals, but they involved at least two key areas of writer compensation for new-media content: ad-supported content created for film or TV and then streamed for free, and content originated on the Internet or mobile platforms, usually derived from film or TV franchises. The proposals did not feature any expansion of existing residuals for fee-based downloads of films or TV shows, also known as electronic sell-through.

After negotiations had concluded for the day, the AMPTP put out a statement saying the parties had agreed to reconvene Tuesday morning. The studio group also calculated what its latest proposals meant in potential gains by writers, dubbing its package of proposals on new-media compensation the "New Economic Partnership."

"The entire value of the (package) will deliver more than $130 million in additional compensation above and beyond the more than $1.3 billion writers already receive each year," the AMPTP said. "In response, the WGA has asked for time to study the proposals. While we strongly preferred to continue discussions, we respect and understand the WGA's desire to review the proposals."

The WGA also has been concerned about a "promotional window" studios want penciled into any compensation agreement on streamed content, with management seeking the right to distribute such content for months, or at least several weeks, without triggering residual payments. There was no indication of whether the matter had been addressed.

One additional area that was addressed was TV scribes' pay for content distributed over digital broadcast channels. Currently, they do not receive extra pay for such usage, but the AMPTP has proposed paying first-time residuals under an unspecified new formula, an AMPTP spokeswoman said.

A press blackout that had been in place during bargaining sessions held earlier this week has been lifted at the WGA's request, the management spokeswoman said.

"Our inability to communicate with our members has left a vacuum of information that has been filled with rumors, both well-intentioned and deceptive," the WGA said Thursday night. "Among the rumors was the assertion that the AMPTP had a groundbreaking proposal that would make this negotiation a 'done deal.' In fact, for the first three days of this week, the companies presented in essence their Nov. 4 package with not an iota of movement on any of the issues that matter to writers.

"Thursday morning, the first new proposal was finally presented to us," the guild added. "For streaming television episodes, the companies proposed a residual structure of a single fixed payment of less than $250 for a year's reuse of an hourlong program (compared to over $20,000 payable for a network rerun). For theatrical product, they are offering no residuals whatsoever for streaming. For made-for-Internet material, they offered minimums that would allow a studio to produce up to a 15-minute episode of network-derived Web content for a script fee of $1,300. They continued to refuse to grant jurisdiction over original content for the Internet."

Meanwhile, it also emerged Thursday that federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzales hasn't been on hand for any of the sessions held since talks resumed Monday. Rather, CAA partner Bryan Lourd has taken up roost at the undisclosed site of the talks, meeting separately with labor and management negotiators when they emerge from brief negotiating sessions to caucus among themselves.

"I think it's good to have an adult in the mix, so to speak, to keep everybody from falling apart," one top management insider said. "But from what I've heard, it is not moving productively."

Said another such source: "It's very glacial. Bryan Lourd is acting like a mediator, but I think he's been very frustrated with the writers."

Tuesday now becomes a critical day for the tense negotiations. How the writers formally respond at the bargaining table -- and how management feels about that response to their latest proposals -- could begin to shape any one of three basic scenarios:

  Progress proves within reach, and a deal is struck in coming days or weeks.

  Progress is made, but the complexity of issues prompts a return to work by striking writers while negotiations slog forward.

  Impasse on key issues appears inevitable, and the AMPTP turns its attention to contract talks with the DGA.

At least one well-placed source said things have gone poorly enough this week that the last possibility appears the most likely. Such a scenario would see the AMPTP bank on a quick and easy deal with directors that might be used as a template for eventual new deals with the WGA and SAG.

The DGA and SAG have AMPTP pacts running through June 30. The actors aren't expected to engage in talks while the WGA is on strike, but the directors are ready to begin early negotiations if it becomes clear that the WGA and AMPTP are at impasse.

The DGA was poised to do just that a few weeks after the WGA's contract expired Oct. 31 and the writers strike began five days later. But the directors group retrenched to a watch-and-wait posture after the WGA and AMPTP agreed to resume bargaining.
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