New issues have both WGA offices working as one

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As president of the Writers Guild of America West, Patric Verrone encounters writers grappling with rights and compensation issues on a fairly regular basis, but it has been his personal writing labors on an animated comedy that have recently provided him with the most dramatic glimpses of the multiplatform paradigm overtaking Hollywood.

"We've been asked to write four movie scripts for 'Futurama,' to be chopped into 16 half-hours for Fox, Comedy Central and direct-to-DVD," Verrone explains. "So, we're writing something, but we don't know if (or how or when) it's going to be released in theaters.

"We also don't know whether they will cut them up into little things for cell phones, the Internet or downloads," he continues.

"We don't know how the sausage is going to come out at the other end of what we're doing, so to speak."

Not so coincidentally, the WGA headed into 2007 intending to gain more control over the industry's collective sausage factory.

For some time, the guild has been complaining that writers and other talent are inadequately compensated for the reuse of the content they help to create when it's reused over new-media distribution platforms. With the primary WGA film and TV contract set to expire in October, new-media residuals are expected to figure front and center in negotiations for a new Hollywood writers pact.

Leadership of the WGAW and WGA East take care to stress that the Internet, cell phones and other mobile devices also offer major new opportunities for creative talent. So, their concern isn't about resisting new business models so much as finding a fair and lucrative role for writers in the emerging paradigms.

"We're seeing a landscape that's changing, and we want to make sure we get the same kind of benefits and compensation in new media that these companies have been giving us for decades in traditional media," Verrone says. "I want the industry and the membership to be aware that we appreciate how quickly the industry is changing and the impact that's having. I do think that the evolving technologies can work both to the benefit of the talent and the business ends of the industry, (but) we just want to be compensated fairly."

Verrone notes that he and his fellow scribes on his current "Futurama" project will be compensated under existing contract formulas for any conventional reuse that's made from their four feature-length scripts. But the potential new-media schemes represent gray areas.

A big point of contention in such cases is whether Internet or mobile reuse involves a promotional or "experimental" usage, for which producers might avoid paying talent any additional compensation. It's just such questions that are expected to complicate discussions of new-media residuals once labor and management sit down for the next round of film and TV contract negotiations.

The WGA recently nixed entering into those contract talks earlier than this summer, suggesting that executives need the intervening months to formulate an approach to new-media residuals. WGAW executive director David Young says the guild will go to its membership in the next month or so, seeking input on negotiating strategy for the upcoming talks.

"We do a mailing to every single member that allows them to weigh in on every single issue they care about," Young says. "It's a fairly systematic approach."

Usage is just one of many matters occupying guild brass these days.

On the organizing front, reality television remains a largely frustrating area for the WGA. Its efforts to back a dozen writer-producers at the CW's "America's Next Top Model" last summer not only failed to win representation rights for the now-ousted group of employees but blew up into a jurisdictional battle with IATSE that a federal labor judge now must sort out.

"You have companies that are interested in saving money and saving labor costs, and unfortunately, they're doing that on the back of the talent community," Verrone fumes. "And when talent fights back, they don't have either the resources or the deep pockets of the industry."
 
It remains to be seen whether the WGA can achieve greater success in the area this year, but Young says that if results don't turn out as hoped, it won't have been for lack of effort.

"The game is absolutely not over -- that I can assure you," Young says. "We will continue to augment our efforts in all aspects of organizing, broad-based job actions and (litigation)."

That latter category includes the WGAW's continued backing of class-action suits involving overtime issues at reality productions.

Elsewhere on the WGA's agenda is a campaign to win writers a voice in deciding when and how to integrate product placements into film and TV content. Guild executives have lobbied U.S. and European regulators on the subject, but thus far, the studios and networks have refused to grant talent any specific voice in such decisions.

"This issue is not ephemeral," Verrone warns. "Consultation and disclosure are key."

Close consultation also has been key to an area of apparent success within the WGA itself.

There have long been jurisdictional disputes between the WGAW and WGAE, and Verrone and WGAE president Chris Albers went to work sorting out their squabbles soon after taking office in September 2005. The two hammered out a series of solutions to the long-standing disagreements, and in June, membership approved related amendments to the guild's constitution.

Perhaps most importantly, any future East-West conflicts would immediately be subject to expedited arbitration. Amendments also spelled out specific geographical boundaries between the WGAW and WGAE and tied union affiliation to a member's primary geographical base for the past two years.

The changes also determined that the number of WGAE and WGAW members on a negotiating committee for a collective-bargaining agreement should be proportional to the number of members in each guild eligible to vote on any agreement.

"We're two separate unions, (but) we spent too much of our time focusing on ways that we were different," Albers recalls. "Things that didn't need to become problems did, just because we focused on doing things differently. But we've cleaned some things up, and now when we get together for joint meetings, we can actually talk about issues."

The leaders suggest they also have been working behind the scenes to strike closer relationships with officials at other Hollywood unions. "One of the key elements of our administration has been to work collectively with the other unions," Verrone says.

Observers remain a bit skeptical whether the key above-the-line unions -- the WGA, the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America -- will ever present a truly united front to Hollywood management.

"There's no question that there is a natural alliance that already exists between the writer and actors unions," a well-placed labor community insider says. "On the other hand, the Directors Guild historically has done everything they can to distance themselves from those two unions. The real question is, do the writers have enough clout to be of value as an ally to either of the other two unions?"

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