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WGA Negotiations Begin: Studios' Opening Proposals Includes Alleged $60 Million in Rollbacks

The WGA's new deal will probably resemble that of the Directors Guild, which ratified its contract last month with solid gains.

Talks began Monday between the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, but not before the WGA sent an unusual letter to its members late last week asserting that studio negotiators had sent them opening proposals that "included 60 million dollars in rollbacks for writers, 32 million of that coming from our health plan. But it doesn’t stop there. Other proposals targeted screenplay minimums (11 million dollar rollback), TV residuals and our Pension Plan.”

That sounds like the start of a bumpy negotiation. But contrast the WGA's charges with the fact that the Directors Guild ratified its contract last month with solid gains and nary a rollback.

For half a century, negotiations with above-the-line unions have been characterized by a phenomenon called "pattern bargaining": the first deal done in a negotiating cycle sets the template for the others with regard to wage increases, pension and health contributions, most residual formulas and various other terms. (Other issues, of course, always remain that are specific to writers, say, or actors, with no analog for directors.)

This year is unlikely to be different. And that suggests that no matter how much drama kicks off the negotiations, they’ll settle into a rhythm that produces a deal similar to the template set by the DGA.

That deal looked like this:

Wages: An annual 3 percent wage increase, up from 2 percent increases in the previous three-year contract.

Residuals: Increased residuals bases, including for network primetime reruns, an area in which residuals had been frozen in the previous contract.

Basic cable: "Outsized increase" for directors of one-hour basic cable series.

Subscription video on demand (SVOD): Established, for the first time, minimum terms and conditions for high-budget new media made for subscription video on demand (SVOD).

Streaming media: Increased residuals in streaming new media.

Diversity: Established a formal diversity program at every major television studio.

Compare this with the WGA's letter to members, which listed the union's priorities as "achieving parity in basic cable, taking care of unfinished business in new media and limiting unpaid exclusivity and holding arrangements that increasingly prevent television writers from making a living -- this while protecting the health and pension plans that make all our lives tenable."

It's clear that there is overlap between what the DGA got and what the WGA says it wants. The history of pattern bargaining suggests that in those areas the writers will achieve pretty much the same agreement as the directors. The art of the deal, for Writers Guild negotiators, will come in whether they obtain major writer-specific deal points as well, such as the TV writer point they identify. That process will play out behind closed doors in the coming days and weeks.

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