Right now it's all on spec

Biz looks to WGA meeting for answers, next steps

With an entire industry eyeing a pair of WGA meetings Saturday, everybody and their (out of work) brother wants to know when the picket lines will come down and the more than three-month writers strike will end.

There also are these questions to consider:

Will WGA leaders actually recommend that members accept a tentative agreement or simply detail possible terms and gauge the reaction?

If terms appear sweeter than those in the recent DGA contract deal — which is now out for a ratification vote — will that put the DGA pact in peril?

Will leaders of the recently war-like SAG slap their foreheads upon hearing news of a writers deal and declare, "Now that's a deal we could embrace!" Or not.

"The WGA members have got to know — and I think this will be conveyed on Saturday — that negotiations are not a shopping spree, and you don't get everything you want," said Jonathan Handel, a TroyGould attorney and former WGA West associate counsel. "But they can also tell the members that the DGA deal wouldn't have been as good as it was without the writers strike, which I believe is true. And they can also say they've managed to get some improvements in those terms."

Labor and management attorneys have been crafting language of a possible tentative agreement between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, following up on earlier informal talks between top studio execs and guild brass. A media blackout has kept industry figures from knowing much about what's been hammered out behind close doors this week, but here's what bears on each of the key questions:

Membership presentations

New York media will be on the bleeding edge of trying to figure out what details are dished to guild members, as the WGA East has set its meeting for 2 p.m. EST Saturday at a Manhattan hotel. That's eight hours before the WGAW makes its presentation at 7 p.m. PST at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles.

Although the WGA negotiating committee could vote to recommend the contract to members while contract language is still being finalized, a top guild source said there is zero chance the committee would do so. Still, there's high optimism the drafting work can be done by Saturday, even though attorneys were still hashing out key new-media components of the prospective pact Thursday.

If the negotiating committee approves the agreement and members don't squawk, the WGAW board and WGAE council also could vote on the pact by the end of the weekend.

Under the WGA constitution, the board and council can halt a strike without a membership vote. And if it opts for a ratification vote, a constitutional provision allows a speedier-than-usual process of just 48 hours.

DGA impact

Unions sometimes include so-called favored nations language in their contracts, allowing them to reap the benefits of better terms secured by sister unions after their own agreement is in place. However, the DGA's agreement with the AMPTP has no such clause.

"We negotiated a very good deal for members, and that deal will stand in its own right," DGA spokeswoman Sahar Moridani said.

It was less clear if any sort of handshake arrangement was made over potentially reopening select areas of the DGA contract in the event of a better WGA deal.

The directors have until Feb. 20 to vote on approving their tentative agreement. Unsurprisingly, materials sent with ballots do not address the matter of whether the WGA negotiations might result in the DGA's contract being tweaked.

SAG reaction

SAG president Alan Rosenberg — a key ally of WGAW president Patric Verrone — recently suggested the actors might have different priorities than writers and hold out for additional contract demands in their contract negotiations with the AMPTP. But some suggest Rosenberg has simply been trying to keep the heat on AMPTP negotiators and ultimately will prove less bellicose when SAG enters its own film and TV contract talks.

SAG is under contract with the AMPTP through June 30. On Monday, George Clooney suggested the guild should begin negotiations soon and put aside any temptation toward negotiating brinkmanship (HR 2/5).

SAG is caught in a related debate with sister performers union AFTRA about how — or even whether — to negotiate jointly with the AMPTP this time. They've been doing that for decades, under their so-called Phase One arrangement.

But unless one or the other back off their positions regarding composition of a joint negotiating committee, SAG and AFTRA each might have to negotiate separately with the studio group. AFTRA already has floated the prospect of a March start for such talks.

Meanwhile, Viacom topper Sumner Redstone and former Disney chief Michael Eisner expressed great optimism that the strike's end is imminent.

Speaking Thursday night at a Paley Center for Media gala at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Redstone said that while he is "not a prognosticator," he expects the strike to end "quickly." And on CNBC, Eisner said during an interview that "a deal has been made, and they'll be back to work very soon. … I know a deal's been made. I know it's over."

The optimistic appraisals roughly reflect the feelings of many industyites — who nevertheless will be anxious to hear what WGA leaders have to say on the subject Saturday.

Georg Szalai in New York contributed to this report.