WGA Sends Out 'Pattern of Demands' Seeking Major Contract Improvements

5:28 PM PST 12/22/2010 by Jonathan Handel
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Goals include increases in minimums, pension and health, home video residuals and new media reuse, and revamps of pitching process.

The WGA signaled Wednesday that its 2011 studio contract negotiations, still unscheduled, might not be easy, releasing a proposed "Pattern of Demands" of ambitious scope. The document was sent to members today, with a return date of Jan. 24.

If approved as expected, the document becomes the guild's outline of negotiating priorities. It does not contain specific proposals, dollars or percentages -- nor angry rhetoric -- but the list alone is likely to elicit concern among studio executives because 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 proposal's cover note did say that there was "no ... single galvanizing issue" in this negotiating cycle. Still, the real question is how hard the guild will fight for its various goals -- and when negotiations will start. The current contract expires May 1.

Among the guild’s goals: increases in minimums and employer pension and health contributions and more money for new-media reuse and programs made for pay cable and basic cable. SAG/AFTRA and the DGA got 2% annual wage bumps and a one-time 1.5% increase in P&H. It's assumed the WGA will end up with the same numbers. SAG/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 development issues the guild has identified could result in significant confrontation and extended negotiations. These include "prewrites" and sweepstakes pitching (in which large numbers of writers are asked to pitch multiple times on a single project).

Another guild sore point: the prevalence of one-step deals, rather than the multistep deals that predated the 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% of DVD revenue is swept off the table before the residual is even calculated.

The studios respond that the losses they contend most films incur in theatrical release means that they can't afford to increase the home video payout. Ironically, and worrisome to the studios, the home video business itself has declined precipitously in the past five years as consumers have moved to Netflix, Redbox and other options.

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

The AMPTP had no comment.

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'.

Also included in the Pattern of Demands is a proposal for animation jurisdiction. This was another AMPTP roadblock in the last cycle, and the WGA dropped the demand. Notably, the president of the guild at that time was Patric Verrone, an animation writer.

Another jurisdictional proposal -- in motion capture -- is somewhat confusing, because motion capture is a production process, not a script category.

The outlined increase in made for pay residuals is a WGA perennial. The guild's formula in this area is less lucrative than the DGA's or SAG/AFTRA's due to some missteps by the WGA in the early 1980s. The studios have agreed to incremental increases a number of times, but the structure of the formula has not changed.

Unknown is how the Pattern of Demands compares with the initial demands made by SAG/AFTRA and the DGA. Those unions don't issue such a document, and usually keep their opening moves confidential. Indeed, because of the lack of detail in the pattern, an apples to apples comparison may be impossible.

Negotiating committee members include co-chairs John F. Bowman and Billy Ray and members Alfredo Barrios, Andrew Bergman, John Brancato, Patti Carr, Jonathan Fernandez, David A. Goodman, Chip Johannessen, Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore, Jeremy Pikser, Shawn Ryan, Thania St. John, Stephen Schiff and Mike Scully. They unanimously recommended the Pattern of Demands.

The guild said it would conduct outreach meetings, e-mails, website postings and other communications in the coming months "to further engage and mobilize writers."

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