WGA Awards Preview: After the strike

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Most unions strike for working conditions, wage increases and better health care plans. But last year, the Writers Guild of America turned labor on its head when its raison de resistance became new media and gaining jurisdiction over produced content available for download.

At first blush, it may not have seemed the most logical battle cry for a Hollywood union. After all, since the Internet boom came and went in 2001, network and film studios have slowly and cautiously increased their presence on the Web. And the WGA certainly made demands in those other union basics, like increased contributions to member pension plans.

But since the strike ended in February, there has been a noticeable increase in the presence of TV and film on the Internet, with companies like Sony transforming its online video hub Crackle.com into a place where full-length TV shows and movies, as well as short-form originals, can be downloaded and viewed.

That's not to say this online boom wouldn't have happened without the strike, but the WGA walkout certainly caused many in Hollywood to sit up and take notice.

"We used the Internet to win the Internet," says WGA West president Patric Verrone. "Writers blogged and made YouTube videos, and the United Hollywood site was created. We used all this technology."

Over 100 days, writers walked the picket lines as Tinseltown took a hit, from below-the-line workers to the studios.

A study of the strike released in June by economic think tank the Milken Institute projected that 37,700 jobs would be lost in California alone by the end of 2008, and the strike and its aftermath would cost the state $2.1 billion. (The pre-economic crash study warned that it could get worse if the actors go on strike.)

The studios' bargaining arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, puts the loss to writers alone at $285 million, and $490 million for IATSE crews.

And while the DGA may have swooped in during the strike to be the first to ink a deal with the AMPTP, which included establishing a new-media residual platform, Verrone has no qualms about the strike.

"We were clearly not going to get what we deserved without one," Verrone says. "In the six to eight months since then, I think we're being proved correct in our assessment that new media and new distribution models are the future of the industry, and that (the studios) need us to produce them and they should pay us properly.

"The companies could have given us what we demanded very early on without a strike," Verrone adds.

Now, with the strike over, the difficult task ahead for the guild is to track the new-media residuals. But 10 months after scribes put down their picket signs and picked up their pencils, the guild claims collecting residuals from AMPTP members is as difficult as pulling teeth.

"They're paying for computer-development programs and protocols, but they're not in place yet," Verrone says of the studios and producers. "We have not seen a penny from new-media residuals yet -- not because it's not due, and not because they're not making money, but because they don't have the means to pay yet."

In November, the WGA filed an arbitration complaint against the AMPTP, alleging the nonpayment of residuals. Among the issues raised was whether the residuals owed for older programs streamed online dates all the way back to the 1970s or only to February, when the new deal was inked.

The AMPTP denies the guild's contention.

"The producers are implementing the terms of the agreement we made with the WGA, just as we have with the other 309 major labor agreements the AMPTP has made over the last 26 years," the group says.

Verrone admits tracking new-media residuals is a "tedious" process: The AMPTP must first make a payment, and then the guild's residual office checks the payment against the revenue of the program or movie.

"We have auditing provision in our contract in addition to the new language specifically to evaluate the new-media deals being made," Verrone says. "It does require diligence on our part."

Verrone may not be able to give an amount of what's due to WGA members post-strike, but he knows they're owed. "We know because our members work on these shows and see them listed on iTunes," he says. "There's money due. We know it's due."

The strike did something else for the writers: It brought back solidarity.

Out of the ashes emerged a union that was once divided, where many joined because they had to and ignored general union business.

"If nothing else, the strike showed we were willing to go to the mat on these issues," adds WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson. "Employers know we're serious about this. We don't go away because you say no."

The solidarity has breathed new life into the guild, with its leaders riding high since inking a deal with the AMPTP last February.

"There's a much stronger working relationship between East and West," Peterson says. "Certainly our members are more unified. It brought people together, and it raised public consciousness about the role of writers and that it is possible to stand up for your rights in this new economy."

Members continue to unite post-strike, joining the guild's campaigns against FremantleMedia North America and showrunner Tyler Perry.

With Fremantle, the guild claims that the company gives production titles to writers on shows like "American Idol" to avoid WGA coverage. In the case of Fremantle's new variety show with Ozzy Osbourne, the guild claims producers asked writers to work on "half-scripted" shows, which would greatly reduce their writing fees.

This past summer, the guild, along with the Teamsters, even embarked on an "American Idol Truth Tour," which hit several of the show's audition spots to educate the public.

Fremantle general counsel David Shall has called the campaign one of "defamation and negative propaganda."

With Tyler Perry, the guild claims that four writers were fired in Atlanta who were involved in organizing the WGA for the showrunner's cable shows "House of Payne" and "Meet the Browns."

Perry allegedly refused to agree to a contract that would give the writers health care benefits, pensions and residuals.

Perry and the WGA hashed out an agreement, with the help of the NAACP, just before Thanksgiving.

Perry's camp denies the allegations and says the writers were fired because of poor work performance.

But Verrone disagrees, believing their dismissal was because of their desire to be covered by the WGA.

It's not out of the ordinary, Verrone says, for companies to find "clever" ways to employ writers without a WGA contract.

As for the future, the guild says it is essential to enforce the contract that's in place for traditional media, while organizing and building a jurisdictional base in new media.

In an ever-changing online world, the biggest hurdle is just keeping up with the trends -- and Verrone's ready for his next battle.

"There's going to be this transition period where old media turns into new media, and we have to have a handle on that," Verrone says. "That's the place where the companies are going to fight us hardest."

For radio and TV news writers, new media creates a blurred line over who is covered and who is not, Peterson says.

There's been a "nascent shift" from traditional to new formats for Web content, he says, where a lot more writing, producing and visual production is being done for online.

"Some of the challenges are interesting," Peterson says. "But it makes people anxious. It's different, and nobody knows where that's going to wind up."
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