Results of Writers Guild 'Pattern of Demands' Vote Still Unknown

9:00 PM PST 02/01/2011 by Jonathan Handel
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Balloting closed Jan. 24 on the wide-ranging outline of negotiating priorities, but the guild has not yet announced the results of the vote.

The WGA POD is MIA.

Or, to put that in English, there’s still no word from the WGA on its "Pattern of Demands." That document, a proposed outline of the guild’s negotiating priorities, was sent to members Dec. 22 for an up or down vote, with a return date of Jan. 24.

December holiday presents have long since been unwrapped, consumed, discarded or regifted -- and Jan. 24 has come and gone -- but the WGA has not announced the results of the vote as yet. A WGA West spokesman had no explanation for the delay and no comment on when results might be available.

Also unknown is when negotiations will start. The current contract expires May 1. SAG, AFTRA and the DGA have already negotiated and ratified their new agreements, which take effect when their agreements expire June 30.

The WGA's wide-ranging Pattern of Demands does not contain specific proposals, dollars or percentages – nor angry rhetoric – but the list alone is likely to elicit concern among studio executives since it seeks many different monetary increases plus significant changes in the script development process.

Of course, creating that anxiety is a first step in the posturing and positioning that marks most labor negotiations.

Ameliorating things, the cover note that was sent out in December with the Pattern of Demands said there was "no … single galvanizing issue" in this negotiating cycle. That signals that a strike is quite unlikely, but whether the WGA will end up working without a new contract for a period after the current one expires remains a possibility. That happened in the 2004 negotiating cycle.

Among the guild’s goals: increases in minimums, employer pension and health contributions, new-media residuals and residuals for made for pay and made for basic cable programs. SAG/AFTRA and the DGA got 2 percent annual wage bumps and a one-time 1.5 percent increase in P&H. It's assumed the WGA will end up with the same numbers.

In addition, SAG and AFTRA received a slight improvement in made for new-media programming, and the DGA obtained a higher wage tier in made for basic cable.

The fact that neither union achieved improvements in both these areas suggests that it would be difficult for the WGA to do so either. In a "Contract 2011 Bulletin" sent to members last fall, the guild detailed four new-media deal points, none of which the other unions achieved. They were: shortening the 17/24-day free initial streaming window; increasing ad-supported streaming residuals; reviewing the rules for clips used in new media; and addressing limitations in coverage of made-for-new media programs.

The other unions also accepted a shift from first-class air travel to new rules favoring business class and coach. The industry practice of "pattern bargaining," in which the deals for each of the above-the-line unions mirror each other in many respects, suggests that the WGA will end up with the same revisions. However, since writers travel to locations less frequently than do actors or directors, the shift will result in less discomfort for the WGA -- but also less savings for the studios.

The development issues the guild identified in its Pattern of Demands could result in contentious negotiations. These include "prewrites" -- in which writers are asked to prepare uncompensated treatments -- and sweepstakes pitching.

The latter is a practice in which a studio asks multiple writers to pitch their approaches to a movie idea proposed by the studio. The studio may then ask a number of those writers to come back for meetings repeatedly, using the process as an unpaid way of having numerous writers refine the studio’s initial idea. In the end, the studio hires -- and pays for -- just one writer (at least until it orders rewrites).

Creative rights matters such as sweepstakes pitching may be particularly touchy, since the issues are not just monetary. That means that studios’ creative management, in addition to business executives, will have to weigh in on the studios’ negotiating posture.

Another guild sore point: the prevalence of one-step deals, rather than the multistep deals that predated the 2007-08 strike and the troubled economy. Writers dislike one-step deals not only because the money is less (unless the writer is then hired to do revisions), but also because it gives the writer only one shot to get it right.

Another money issue is a demand for an increase in home video residuals. The unions dislike the quarter-century-old formula so much that the WGA called it "the hated DVD formula" in the last round of negotiations. That’s because 80 percent of DVD revenue is swept off the table before the residual is even calculated.

The studios respond that they need that revenue to offset the losses they contend most films incur in theatrical release. Ironically, and worrisome to the studios, the home video business itself has declined precipitously in the past five years as consumers moved to Netflix, Redbox and various streaming options.

How hard the WGA will push on home video remains to be seen. In the last negotiating cycle, the AMPTP labeled the proposal a "roadblock" and the WGA ultimately withdrew it.

The WGA also wants to limit option periods for renewal of employment on episodic series. That means that networks and producers would have to decide more quickly whether to pick up a writer for the next season, reducing management’s flexibility and increasing writers'.

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