Scribes, studios back in the ring

Talks still hinge on new media

At 10 this morning, union scribes and studio suits are set to touch gloves and resume their sparring over terms of a new film and TV contract.

Industryites scoring this latest round of negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers hope the parties keep things sporting and avoid the bloody spectacle of 17 previous bargaining sessions. But things will swing on two key questions:

Will the parties pick up roughly where they left off Nov. 4? That was their last bargaining session before the writers strike began Nov. 5, and it featured a withdrawal of DVD demands by the guild as well as some give on new-media compensation by the studios.

How flexible will the WGA or the AMPTP prove on matters important to each other and offering possibility for compromise?

The guild and studios have implemented a press blackout on today's session, which is being held at an undisclosed location. Those were the ground rules for their last bargaining session only, and it will bear watching whether they make any difference in the proceedings.

In the last session, parties met at the Sofitel Hotel in Los Angeles after alternating between guild headquarters in Los Angeles and AMPTP's office in Encino.

A federal mediator who's joined the proceedings for the past few sessions surely had something to do with the press blackout. The move to a secret site for the talks seemed designed to discourage daily coverage by broadcast media, which had taken to parking its camera trucks outside WGA headquarters in the final days before the strike.

Meanwhile, guild members will continue picketing activities on both coasts into a fourth week of the strike.

The WGA West posted on its Web site that pickets should take up their usual sites at nine locations throughout Los Angeles today. The WGA East is planning a membership rally for Washington Square Park in New York on Tuesday.

WGA brass believes that its picketing, rallies and other public pressure have forced management back to the bargaining table. It also appeared that AMPTP might have been surprised by the wide early support for the strike among TV showrunners.

Studios pressed the showrunners hard, with CBS Paramount Network TV and 20th Century Fox TV even threatening legal action for any of them staying off the job. But at least for the first week or two, showrunner support remained solid, with some such as Shonda Rhimes of ABC's "Private Practice" and Greg Daniels of NBC's "The Office" picketing their own shows.

Still, most of the damage that support could wreak has already been accomplished, and many showrunners are expected to head back to work to help with nonwriting chores on final episodes of strike-shortened series. Continued leverage from the writers strike will hinge on how networks' replacement programming — mostly reality shows — does in the ratings and whether early signs of film-side disruptions broaden.

Writer-director Craig Mazin ("Superhero!"), who maintains the well-followed ArtfulWriter blog, suggested last week that labor gains from the showrunners' support were limited.

"The fact that they did what they did was individually brave and commendable," Mazin wrote. "But collectively, it was a high risk/low gain strategy. Shutting down post earlier than normal maybe stole back a few more weeks of episodes than a simple cessation of writing would have."

Another top showrunner recently told The Hollywood Reporter that the showrunner support was most helpful in the first week of the strike.

"After that … the truth is that we talked among ourselves, and almost every showrunner with any significant amount of post work went quietly back to work," the writer-producer said.

Ivy Kagan Bierman, a labor consultant at the Loeb & Loeb law firm in Los Angeles, said that studios "had thought they could have kept more of their TV shows up and running" but that labor-side negotiators also felt increasing pressure to resume bargaining.

"The WGA was certainly getting a lot of pressure from (IATSE) in terms of its crew that was being kept out of work because of the shows that were shut down," Bierman said. "The economic impact came very quickly this time. So I think there was incentive on both sides (to return to bargaining) as both sides were feeling the damage."

Talent agencies also have absorbed quick fallout from the strike.

Anxious to support their striking clients, agency reps have brought food and drink to picket lines. But top agents also maintained a running dialogue with studio execs in an effort to facilitate back-channel communications between the guild and management.

Those efforts struck pay dirt when an afternoon gathering at CAA partner Bryan Lourd's home Nov. 16 led to an announcement later in the day that talks would resume today.

Now, with negotiations resuming, attention is likely to focus on how the squabbling parties will deal with the key issue of new-media compensation.

The guild wants expanded pay for content re-used over the Internet or mobile platforms and also for content originated on new-media platforms. The studios claim such distribution businesses are still fledgling and won't support major new pay structures.

WGA leaders said their withdrawal of DVD demands in the last bargaining session was only a one-day overture, but studios remain adamantly opposed to boosting DVD residuals. So guild negotiators will continue to focus primarily on new-media compensation, Bierman said.

"I don't think they're going to go backwards, so they will proceed with their talks starting from where they left off," Bierman predicted.

Discussions of advertising-supported new media might prove more difficult than those involving paid downloads, she added. One way of dealing with the matter might be to pay writers not a percentage of sites' advertising revenue — something studios have resisted — but rather a portion of content licensing fees.

Leslie Simmons in Los Angeles contributed to this report.