Studios show some flexibility

Guild seems less than impressed

Studio negotiators tried to put a kindler, gentler face on their WGA contract proposals Thursday.

The management moves came during Day 13 of talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, but it wasn't immediately clear whether the tack might steer discussions onto a more productive track. After the AMPTP's presentation, the parties went into separate caucuses at noon and weren't scheduled to resume bargaining until 11 a.m. today.

"It is incumbent on each party to find the common ground which will result in an agreement," AMPTP president Nick Counter said. "The comprehensive proposal establishes the boundaries for a possible agreement, but it is flexible enough to allow both parties to come up with solutions as to the remaining issues. (It) includes numerous modifications and withdrawals of the producers' proposals and suggestions for narrowing the issues."

Among changes in the AMPTP's newly streamlined proposals were:

increases in ceilings on employer contributions to pension and health funds;

an agreement to loop showrunners into product-integration discussions on TV productions;

suggesting both sides withdraw their respective demands for changes in terms of employment on quiz and variety shows;

and suggesting the parties "mutually withdraw" a management proposal on character payments and a guild proposal regarding mobile-phone ringtones.

The AMPTP also underscored its opposition to certain WGA demands.

"We will not accept increases in the DVD residual formula, in residual payments due for programs run on the CW or MyNetworkTV, or in residual payments for programs made for the pay-television market," AMPTP executive vp Carol Lombardini said.

The writers are under contract through Wednesday, but WGA membership recently gave the green light for leaders to call a strike any time after that. In its own end-of-day statement Thursday, WGA negotiators seemed to stifle a collective yawn over the new AMPTP proposals, though the guild postponed a detailed reaction until today.

"Our employers are growing and dominate the global entertainment industry, yet their opening offer would have rolled back our compensation by 50%," WGA negotiating committee chair John Bowman said. "Now they decrease the rollbacks to 45% and proclaim that they are truly bargaining. Minor adjustments to major rollbacks do not constitute forward motion.

"To make a deal, the AMPTP must engage with us on the issues that matter in this negotiation. With that in mind, we will respond to their proposal tomorrow."

Meanwhile, with the eleventh hour drawing near in the WGA-AMPTP negotiations, parties on both sides of the management-labor divide suggest that a compromise remains possible on some of the most difficult issues.

On the labor side, even some sympathetic to the WGA's proposals give negotiators low marks for public statements suggesting too little wriggle room in their demands.

"The guild has boxed themselves into their position," said a highly placed labor insider, whose organization is publicly committed to backing the WGA. "So now if they don't get it, they are screwed, because they would have to go back to their membership and say, 'We lost.' "

Over on the management side, there is considerable difference of opinion — studio to studio, exec to exec — on how firmly the AMPTP should stick to its guns at the bargaining table on some of the biggest issues.

Management likely will get high marks for trying to advance some notable tweaks Thursday. But the matter of Internet compensation is just one of several vast areas where labor and management negotiators remain far apart.

Many on the management side pine for past times when studio operations were simpler, exec agendas tended to merge and consensus could be managed by an industry statesman.

"There is no Lew Wasserman today, no single one commander to take captain of the ship and whom everybody would respect and is working in everybody's interests," said a producer in an oft-heard lament.

Still, Counter has been forging industry pacts for decades. And if the WGA's chief negotiator — WGA West executive director David Young — is short on experience in contract talks, his negotiating committee chair is not.

Yet negotiating traction has remained elusive. Some suggest it's because Young has been hesitant to engage in bargaining-room banter, and even sidebar conferences have been few since talks began July 16.

With only 13 bargaining sessions held to date, the biggest interruption came when WGA brass opted out of talks throughout most of August and early September, focusing instead on the re-election bids of WGAW president Patric Verrone and his board slate.

Even before Thursday, Counter, confronted by the tight-lipped WGA team, has shown some willingness to swallow hard and display a degree of flexibility. But the AMPTP's recent withdrawal of a controversial proposal to insert cost-recoupment in residual formulas was met with a collective shrug by WGA negotiators.

Guild execs have said that many remaining management proposals were also too onerous. And they suggested the recoupment concept and some other management proposals were never serious ones but merely placed on the table in an effort to show faux flexibility when subsequently withdrawn.

In any event, some believe there is a limit as to how much further flexibility the studios will display.

"For the producers, the reality is you don't want to negotiate against yourself," one well-placed industryite said.

On the other hand, there are no shortage of matters on which the parties might seek compromise, the industry insider added.

"For instance, why does it have to be a three-year contract?" the source observed. "Everybody is so fixated on that, but you could get around some of the problems if you got off of that."

For the present, hope springs, if not eternal, then at least until Wednesday. Management negotiators will be anxious to see whether their Thursday tweaks yield a productive session today.