Counter: Set up WGA talks

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Nick Counter, the producers' lead negotiator with the Hollywood guilds, warned Monday that the WGA's resistance to early talks on a film and TV contract could prompt studio and network execs to act as if a "de facto strike" were in effect.

The WGA's current film and TV contract -- covering movie scribes and most TV writers -- expires Oct. 31. The two sides commonly meet at least a couple of months before contract expiration, but Counter said that even earlier negotiations had been discussed.

"We offered two weeks in January to jump-start negotiations and avoid a de facto strike," said Counter, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. "That's been rejected by the Writers Guild, and we're shocked and dismayed."

AMPTP executives are shocked because preliminary discussions involved still earlier negotiating dates and dismayed because execs may need to curtail greenlighting film projects and ordering scripted TV pilots, he said. The veteran negotiator stressed that those decisions are made individually among studios but said movie activity could be affected almost immediately and TV pilot orders by January.

"We've been going back and forth trying to jump-start early negotiations," said Counter, who negotiates about 80 contracts with guilds in the U.S. and Canada. "At one point, we had envisioned talks as early as fall, then they suggested January, and we accepted that. Apparently that suggestion was taken to their board (and) was turned down."

WGA West executive director David Young, appointed to his post in August after serving 11 months on an interim basis, issued a statement in response to Counter's comments.

"The WGA will be prepared to commence negotiations in the summer of 2007, well in advance of the November contract expiration," Young said. "We are currently meeting with our members on contract issues, as well as continuing our dialogue with sister guilds in Hollywood.

"The WGA has always worked with the companies to make sure that all writers are covered by a guild agreement with proper compensation and residuals for their work," Young said. "We fully expect that a fair agreement will be reached in our upcoming negotiation."

A spokeswoman said Young was unavailable to elaborate on the statement. WGA East executive director Mona Mangan also was unavailable.

Some industryites view the disagreement over early talks as predictable, saying the WGA may continue to delay talks and eventually push for a contract extension to align its negotiations more closely with those of SAG, whose film and TV pact expires in June 2008. That's also when the DGA's pact expires, however, and some note that the directors -- who occasionally act independently from writers and actors in negotiations -- could strike an early deal that sets a negotiating standard for all the guilds.

Counter suggested that Young's relatively recent appointment to the top WGAW staff job may be a problem.

"Mr. Young is new to our business, and he may not have assessed the situation in the best possible way," Counter said.

Young joined the WGAW as director of organizing in July 2004 before being tapped as interim exec director in September 2005. Before that, he held union jobs in nonentertainment fields.

Because of Young's organizing background, sources on the producers side suggest that the WGAW will show less flexibility in negotiations under Young and new guild president Patric Verrone -- not that film and TV talks were easy last time around. The WGA's bid for sweetened DVD residuals was rebuffed, and members worked six months under an expired contract before ratifying a new pact in November 2004.

This time, both sides agree that new-media residuals will loom large as a negotiating issue in contract talks with all the above-the-line guilds.

Talent has grown increasingly unsettled over current compensation formulas with each new studio deal for reusing film and TV content over the Internet and mobile platforms. Sometimes there's no reuse compensation, with producers categorizing projects as promotional or experimental.

SAG recently decided to extend its current commercials contract two years to allow a joint study with the ad industry on how to compensate performers for new-media ad campaigns. Early talks with the WGA might make it similarly necessary to study new-media issues further before locking into a long-term residuals formula with the guild, Counter conceded.

"A full-blown study might have been needed," he said. "But it would be done within the context of an overall (collective bargaining) agreement and not separately."

Meanwhile, at least one well-connected industry insider questioned Counter's concern over the prospect of a writers strike.

"Writers don't really strike, they just write under assumed names," the insider said in an oft-heard assertion. "So studios don't stockpile (scripts) over a writers strike. They stockpile over actors and directors strikes."

Still, some believe that the prospect of an open writers contract could push network execs even further down the road toward filling primetime broadcast schedules with reality programming. WGA leadership has acknowledged its potential use of a strike threat is undermined by the spread of unscripted television and has ratcheted up efforts at organizing such shows.
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