They part, still far apart

Squabble over DVD returns as deadline passes

It's deja vu all over again for the writers and studio reps around the bargaining table.

After months of speculation that Internet compensation will decide whether the WGA seals a new contract or goes out on strike, the studios' chief negotiator has blamed an eleventh-hour impasse on a little shiny disc.

Once again, labor strife is being spelled DVD.

Judging solely from the point-counterpoint between the producers and the guild late Wednesday, the tone would suggest the odds of a writers strike just went up.

"We've been working hard to come up with a package in response to your last proposal, but we keep running up against the DVD issue," said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. "The companies believe that movement is possible on other issues. But they cannot make any movement when confronted with your continuing efforts to increase the DVD formula, including the formula for electronic sell-through.

"The magnitude of that proposal alone is blocking us from making any further progress," Counter said at the end of a second long day of mediated talks with the WGA. "We cannot move further as long as that issue remains on the table. In short, the DVD issue is a complete roadblock to any further progress."

Counter said writers can only expect the same terms for permanent Internet downloads of movies and films as they are now provided under the home video residuals formula. The AMPTP exec left unaddressed the matter of ad-supported content streamed over the Internet for free, a reuse for which WGA members get no further compensation but seek first-time pay minimums.

"We are ready and willing to proceed to reach agreement with you," Counter said. "We call upon you to take the necessary steps now to break this impasse, so that bargaining can continue for our mutual benefit and the good of everyone else who works in this industry."

The guild, in responding with a public statement, seemed to sidestep the question of future DVD residuals and instead slam the suggestion that it must maintain the home video formula on downloads.

"The companies refused to continue to bargain unless we agree that the hated DVD formula be extended to Internet downloads," the WGA said. "(Wednesday) morning we presented the AMPTP with a comprehensive package of proposals that included movement on DVDs, new media and jurisdictional issues. We also took nine proposals off the table. The companies returned six hours later and said they would not respond to our package until we capitulated to their Internet demand.

"After three and a half months of bargaining, the AMPTP still has not responded to a single one of our important proposals," the guild said. "Every issue that matters to writers, including Internet reuse, original writing for new media, DVDs and jurisdiction, has been ignored. This is completely unacceptable."

No further negotiating sessions were scheduled, and it was unclear if the writers' would continue to work under terms of their current contract with the AMPTP, which expired at midnight Wednesday.

Still, Hollywood today is enjoying a limited reprieve from the threat of a writers strike — at least until tonight, as the WGA has set a 7 p.m. membership meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center to update writers on the status of talks.

The AMPTP said the guild rejected an offer to meet today and said it would get back to management over a subsequent offer to meet Friday.

When the negotiations began July 16, the WGA demanded a doubling of current DVD residuals. But the guild more recently presented new proposals in several areas.

The AMPTP initially suggested studying the question of new-media pay for three years but pulled back that proposal when the guild balked.

Whatever the next few days produce, industry preparations for a possible strike continue.

On Wednesday, IATSE and AFTRA issued instructions to its members on now to conduct themselves during any writer work stoppage. SAG, the DGA and the Teamsters sent out similar messages.

"IATSE contracts contain provisions that require us to continue to honor our contracts," wrote Thomas Short, international president of the crafts union. "These no-strike provisions require the IATSE to notify our members of their obligation to honor these contracts and continue working. Any individual member who chooses to honor any picket line is subject to permanent replacement."

The relatively stern tone of the missive is perhaps unsurprising, as Short previously has charged the WGA with taking too militant a posture in the talks.

"In the event of a WGA strike or lockout by the producers, AFTRA members are instructed that they may not perform duties covered by the WGA contract that have been performed by members of the WGA," the performers union said.

AFTRA also noted that its current contracts with studios and networks contain no-strike clauses, and members must report to work and perform their jobs.

"(Members) may express your support — as an individual, through non-work-related activities, during non-work time — to fellow union members of the WGA in their effort to achieve a fair contract," AFTRA said.
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