WGAE leaders encouraged by proposed agreement

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UPDATED 4:13 p.m. PT, Feb. 9, 2008

NEW YORK -- More than 500 WGA East members poured in to a ballroom at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon to debate the draft agreement reached by producers and writers early Saturday morning, in what was the writers guilds first test of the proposed labor agreement.

The session, which lasted nearly three hours, didn't result in any concrete resolution. But leadership said they were encouraged by what they called a very positive response to the proposed agreement, a development which increases the likelihood that leadership on Sunday would recommend that the board approve the deal.

"I think the meeting went very well," said WGA East president Michael Winship, who noted that he thought there were more members at this meeting than at the one authorizing a strike three months ago. "There was a frank discussion of ideas, and everyone who wanted to ask a question got to ask a question."

The group discussed, but did not decide on, whether to lift the strike as early as Monday, ahead of a general membership vote.

Even if the WGA East decided not to lift the strike before the membership vote, that vote could happen in an expedited fashion within 48 hours of the board recommendation, meaning that the strike could then be lifted by mid-week.

It was unlikely the guild would opt for the slower vote-taking process , a by-mail vote that could take up to ten days, though if they did, an agreement could still allow writers to return to work in the interim.

Members emerging from the meeting expressed mainly optimism about the draft of the deal negotiated between the WGA and the AMPTP.

"To have the writers stand up, not give a single thing and make them give - it was a historic moment for labor in this country," said filmmaker Michael Moore on his way out of the meeting. "The studios are going to be very unhappy."

"Late Night with David Letterman" writer and WGA member Bill Scheft told reporters that he too was encouraged by the response of the general members, which he said was inquisitive but not contentious. "I expcted to be bleeding," he said as he came out of the meeting. "I'm not bleeding."

Despite concern before the meeting that harder-line guild members could object that leadership was trying to ram through a deal, there was said to be little resistance at the meeting to the speed at which negotiations were moving, though several members leaving the meeting characterized the reaction in the room to the agreement as "mixed."

Approval of the deal would need to happen within a relatively short window, a fact that has contributed to the overall sensitivity on the part of WGA leadership. WGA leaders warned members at the start of the meeting that a news blackout was still in effect and that they were not to talk to the press.

Sources, however, described the sequence of events inside the meeting.

After an introduction from Winship, every member of the negotiating committee, which was seated on a dais in front of the room, was given a turn to speak, before the meeting was opened up to comments from the general membership.

The majority of the room was filled with TV writers, according to one film writer in attendance, and they raised the large majority of questions about the deal.

"Everyone sounded positive and spoke to voice support for the agreement – people seemed pretty united," the film writer said. "But the discussion was pretty dry, and several TV writers needed to clarify the terms. The language of the contract tends not to be very writer-friendly."

One statement from a negotiating committee member, writer-director Terry George, was said to elicit a particularly strong response from members; George told the assembled that the guild had defeated the tradition of rollbacks that began in 1981 with Ronald Reagan and the air-traffic controllers strike.

The meeting is the first of two key membership tests, with the second to follow at the Shrine auditorium at 7 p.m. PT.

Winship, who returned from the L.A. bargaining sessions early Saturday morning and spoke by phone with WGA West leadership as soon as the WGA East meeting was over, said he would be in contact with West membership throughout the evening and also expected to talk to SAG, which of course has supported the writers strike, very shortly.

Early Saturday morning, the WGA and AMPTP agreed on a tentative agreement that would increase New Media and other residuals and, in the third year of the proposed three-year WGA contract, give writers a straight 2% of the distributor's gross on such content in all years that the content is streams.

But the fact that the first two years didn't reach that level didn't sit well with some writers.

"It sounds like we got screwed in the first two years, but by the third year we'll be in a good business," said screenwriter Peter Iliff, who was driving down a California highway when he heard about the proposed deal terms just before the meeting. Iliff lost his $5 million home and saw three feature directing deals fall apart (including the sequel to his "Point Break" script) thanks to the strike.

The agreement does leave in place a 17-day window in which writers would not be paid for streams, a point identical to what the DGA agreed to in its deal with producers.

Before the meeting, Winship expressed enthusiasm to reporters about the agreement's critical points."I believe it's a good deal," he said.

Still, one member said the larger battle was still to come. "This was all encouraging. But the real action is happening in L.A."

Carl DiOrio in Los Angeles and Gregg Goldstein in New York contributed to this report.
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