WGA pens talking points

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The WGA sketched its negotiating posture for impending talks about a new film and TV contract, including dicey demands to sweeten Internet and DVD terms, and there was an immediate, sharp reaction from the management negotiator.

The guild issued its traditional "pattern of demands" on Friday as a prelude to launching talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on July 16. The WGA's current film and TV contract expires Oct. 31, and the guild's negotiating committee issues the demands list as a constitutionally mandated step in the negotiations process.

"The negotiating committee is comprised of working writers in television and film who know the Internet is the distribution channel of the future," committee chairman John Bowman said. "We have families, and a significant portion of our income is dependent upon the reuse of our services.

"It is reasonable to expect that we will defend our income, based on royalty models the companies have endorsed in the past," Bowman added. "If they get paid, we get paid. If they don't, we don't. This strikes me as perfectly reasonable. It's sane. We expect the companies to negotiate in similar good faith."

Topping the list of compensation demands is "coverage and minimums for writing for the Internet and other nontraditional media," followed closely by a resolve to "increase initial compensation in all areas." Some of the listed priorities are even more targeted, such as "significantly" boosting compensation for writers on the fledgling CW network, improving terms and minimums for scribes on the TV soaps and unspecified modifications to quiz-show compensation provisions.

"It is an assault on the entire industry, those above and below the line," AMPTP president and chief negotiator Nick Counter said. "We are committed to making a deal — one that is fair to both sides, one that is realistic, reasonable and respects our contributions and our business needs as well as theirs. We have been paying residuals on losses for far too long. It is time to re-examine the entire economic landscape, (including) new media as well as traditional media."

The WGA's pattern of demands also listed priorities involving various sorts of residuals. Key among those were:

Further addressing re-use on the Internet and "other nontraditional media";

Increasing DVD and videocassette payments; and

For gross-based residuals, expanding and enhancing procedures "to enforce appropriate arm's-length equivalent standards."

No major surprises there, but the first two bullet points represent key areas for potential conflict across the bargaining table.

Three years ago, the WGA and other guilds tried to sweeten DVD residuals to no avail. And studios and networks favor a go-slow approach to negotiating formulas for residuals on the re-use of content on the Internet and other emerging platforms.

The pattern of demands also calls for increased television residuals for the CW and MyNetworkTV and the reducing of thresholds for foreign residuals. Other priorities include increasing WGA coverage of reality and animated programming and working to provide writers a greater voice on the issue of product integration into entertainment content.

Among the more evergreen demands is a call for raising caps on health fund and pension plan contributions.

The AMPTP's Counter, who was at the Festival de Cannes, was unavailable to elaborate on the WGA statement. But a well-placed source suggested that his sharp reaction was only partly attributable to the WGA's demands in the nettlesome areas of new-media and DVD residuals.

The demands involving increased pay at the CW and expanded coverage of reality and animated programming represent "nonstarters" that set a confrontational tone for the labor-management talks, the source suggested.

Execs on the studio-network side of the negotiations recently have been floating the notion that existing compensation and residual models might be outdated because of broadcast TV's dramatic revenue slide in recent years. Unless labor shows more flexibility, management negotiators will have no option but to aim for tough new deal terms of their own, they say.

Members of the WGA West and East, which together boast more than 12,000 members, have until June 14 to vote on whether to approve the pattern of demands, which are intended only as broad areas of intent for the negotiations and not as detailed contract proposals. The negotiating committee endorsed the demands unanimously, officials said.

"We look forward to bargaining a contract that benefits all writers," WGAW president Patric Verrone said. "As new creative opportunities and income streams emerge in the entertainment industry, we must ensure that writers get their fair share of revenue generated by the content they create."

WGAE president Chris Albers called upcoming talks with the AMPTP "the most important negotiation in the last 20 years" and said negotiations will "shape members economic lives" for years.

"Our job is to make sure that every time a writer's work is watched or heard, the writer is fairly paid," Albers said. "If ever there was a negotiation that really counts, it's this one."

The main film and TV contract for SAG — which has created an advisory committee for the WGA talks — runs through June 2008. That's also when the DGA's main pact with the AMPTP expires, but observers suggest that SAG and the DGA could begin contract talks months before their contract expiration dates.

"The WGA leadership's proposal appears thoughtful and reasonable, addressing issues important to writers and to every industry guild and union member." SAG national executive director Doug Allen said in a statement of support. "Their emphasis on a fair share of new-media revenue and an increase in home video residuals will strike a resonant chord with every movie, television and commercial actor."
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