Script in rewrite for WGA


Reps of Hollywood writers and the major studios enter this week sharing a single resolve: once more, with feeling.

The WGA will hold informal talks with studio CEOs this week in an effort to resume formal negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. News of the hopeful development circulated Friday, a day after the announcement of a new contract with the DGA.

The striking WGA, which hasn't held a negotiating session with the AMPTP since Dec. 7, studied terms of the DGA contract all weekend. The WGA negotiating committee met Saturday and will convene again Tuesday, with the WGA West board set to meet Tuesday morning and the WGA East council also assembling soon.

"We're going to follow the same pattern as the DGA," a WGA insider said. "First meeting with the studio executives informally and then maybe following that up with actual negotiations. But first we have to study all of the details of the DGA deal."

At least two top media chiefs — News Corp.'s Peter Chernin and CBS Corp.'s Leslie Moonves — engaged in back-channel communications with guild officials during the weekend. A management source said it could take until midweek for the parties to advance those chats to more elaborate, if informal, discussions.

But a top guild source said that select CEOs had agreed to discuss some ground rules for such talks Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the significance of further informal talks directly with top studios executives is twofold.

First, it will allow both sides to sort through peripheral issues so the parties then can take into any resumed formal talks only those issues key to a settlement. Most specifically, the sides will have to sort through three somewhat fringe issues that the AMPTP has found objectionable: reality TV and animation jurisdiction, the right to stage sympathy strikes, and forced arbitration in residual situations involving vertically integrated businesses.

Second, the informal talks with studio chiefs will put guild negotiators in direct contact with those on the management side who can actually approve the most important components of a settlement. The AMPTP board is comprised mostly of senior labor-relations execs, whose authority extends only so far as their CEO bosses allow in many areas.

WGA brass will be huddling during the next few days to discuss further strategy in the talks.

"We (will) be scheduling a membership meeting to inform you and hear your questions and concerns as more information becomes available," WGAE president Michael Winship told members in a weekend e-mail. "This is a critical juncture in our struggle. As this process unfolds, we ask for your patience. No matter what you think of the DGA's tentative agreement, what is most important is that the guilds East and West continue to work together in order to achieve our goal — a fair and just agreement for writers."

WGAW president Patric Verrone indicated similar resolve in his weekend remarks, while DGA officials recapped the happy conclusion for members after the directors' own short and sweet negotiations.

"We entered these negotiations fully aware of the impact the current work stoppage is having on each of you as well as the industry as a whole," DGA president Michael Apted wrote in an e-mail to members. "The 2007-08 television season has been truncated and the 2008 pilot season is hanging by a thread. Countless feature projects have been put on hold and tens of thousands of workers, both within the industry and in related fields, have lost their jobs.

"Out of respect for the writers, our creative partners with whom we work so closely, we delayed our negotiations long past their traditional starting point," Apted said. "We are stirred by their concerns and their passion, but with so much at stake and the WGA and the AMPTP at an impasse after their talks broke down for the second time we felt it was our responsibility to you and to our industry to act. We are proud of the results we have achieved."

Industry figures and others have reacted to the DGA settlement primarily with a sense of cautious optimism.

Standard & Poor analyst Tuna Amobi said the DGA pact could be a "catalyst" for the resumption of WGA talks.

"The deal breaks new ground on key areas of jurisdiction and Internet distribution compensation," S&P said in a summary of Amobi's note to investors. "Timing is of the essence and will determine whether it can be done in time to meaningfully aid this TV season."

WGA picketing is expected to continue on both coasts this week. The WGAW will continue to picket at select studio locations, and the WGAE has set a rally for noon Tuesday in Manhattan's Gramercy Park.

"New York is home to many award-winning writers, actors, producers, directors and authors," the WGAE said. "On the day the 2008 Oscar nominations are announced, more than 30 award winners will get together in New York City to send a message to the industry (that) awards are nice, but we'd rather the writers get a fair contract. They will be bringing their awards and their passions about the importance of writers and how the ongoing writers guild strike may affect the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony."

Indeed, the prospect of renewed WGA-AMPTP negotiations will have Hollywood playing beat the clock, with industry figures hoping things can be sorted out in time to have actors and others on board for the Feb. 24 Oscars telecast, unhampered by the prospect of a writers' picket line.

Over the weekend, the creative community continued to react to news of the DGA deal.

Veteran writer-producer and former WGAW president John Wells lauded the directors' pact on the blog.

"I think the DGA deal is good, very good, for writers, for directors, for the future," Wells said.

Terms are substantial, and a guarantee of "opening up" studio books to ensure talent their proper residual payments is a lesser-discussed benefit of the pact, he said.

A group of strike captains, writing on the blog, also gave a collective opinion on some key provisions of the DGA's tentative agreement.

The group called the sums obtained on film and TV downloads — which roughly double current residuals on such "electronic sell-through" windows — "still terribly low." But the writers lauded first-time jurisdiction guarantees over new media, while suggesting the guaranteed minimums on original Internet content are low but "better than no coverage at all."