'Informal' is normal, even in strike talks


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Hollywood is populated by executives lacking close acquaintance with starched collars or neckties, so perhaps it's no surprise that the industry seems suddenly enamored with "informal" contract talks.

The WGA announced Jan. 18 that its leaders would hold informal talks with studio execs about how to get back to formal negotiations, an approach mimicking one taken previously to good effect by the DGA. The previous day, the directors announced a tentative three-year pact hammered out in just six days of formal bargaining, but those DGA negotiations were preceded by weeks of informal, off-the-record discussions over how to approach actual collective bargaining.

The informal-before-formal tack is seldom seen outside of Hollywood, but the writers and their studio employers now are following a similar course, with Monday marking the sixth day of informal talks between WGA officials and studio CEOs. Of course, Tuesday marks Day 86 of the WGA strike, so the ongoing discussions are fraught with tensions mostly missing from the same stage of the DGA's contract talks.

Yet the question remains: What the heck are these people talking about for so long, outside the context of actual negotiations?

"One area the writers have a lot of interest in involves the concept of separated rights," said Jonathan Handel, TroyGould attorney and former WGA West associate counsel. "It's a very complicated concept and could be taking a lot of time."

Separated rights are a grab bag of property-exploitation rights that screenwriters and TV scribes maintain after signing over their works to the studios. Such rights involve such things as stageplay treatments, novelization and claims on an original character who might be used in another work.

As for more core contract issues like new-media residuals -- an area in which the DGA made great strides but where the WGA seeks even greater new compensation -- Handel said he believes any discussion is useful discussion.

"It's a good sign the studios haven't thrown the writers out on their ears," the one-time WGA insider said.

DGA execs spent much of their time in the meetings leading up to their actual negotiations sharing details of research the guild commissioned on new-media issues, and WGA brass also might be rehashing some overarching views of the new-media landscape. There is a practical advantage to sorting through all sorts of difficult issues in off-the-record meetings before heading to the actual bargaining table, Handel said.

"Down the line, when there is a dispute involving the contract, you get to go back and look at the notes of the negotiations," the TroyGould attorney pointed out.

Meanwhile, it should be noted that even the DGA had a lot of heavy lifting still to do when it finally got into formal contract talks, a negotiations insider said.

"It's not like those were just to rubber stamp things," the source said.

Still, it's safe to say the town will take a collective sigh of relief if the WGA's ongoing informal talks with studio execs allow the parties soon to announce the resumption of actual negotiations. There hasn't been a bargaining session between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers since Dec. 7, and industryites to a person are hoping a way can be found to end the writers strike before the Oscars are held Feb. 24.

Short of that, the threat of a WGA picket line at the Academy Awards is high and a broad boycott by SAG actors almost a given. On Monday, hundreds of SAG members joined WGA strikers in a large solidarity rally outside the Fox lot in West Los Angeles.