Weekend updates from WGA


This weekend is looming large for those looking for signs of when the three-month writers strike will wind to a close.

The WGA West has set a membership meeting for 6:30 p.m. PST Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The WGA East will gather its troops at 2 p.m. EST Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Manhattan for an update on contract negotiations.

WGA negotiating committee chair John Bowman on Tuesday gave members of the WGA West and East a heads-up that "informational meetings" are being planned for this weekend.

"While we have made important progress since the companies re-engaged us in serious talks, negotiations continue," Bowman said. "Regardless of what you hear or read, there are many significant points that have yet to be worked out.

"In order to keep members abreast of the latest developments, informational meetings are being planned by both guilds for this weekend," he said. "Neither the negotiating committee, nor the West board or the East council will take action on the contract until after the membership meetings."

WGA Awards winners are being announced Saturday night, with the WGAW doing so by news release and the WGAE holding a members-only cocktail reception for nominees. Throw in membership meetings on both coasts and possible board and council meetings, and it's likely that the industry will have a good sense come Monday morning of when the striking writers might put down their picket signs.

But for now, it remains business as usual, with strike activities continuing in Los Angeles and New York.

"As the talks proceed, never forget that during this period it is critical for us to remain on the picket lines united and strong," Bowman said. "We are all in this together."

Representatives of the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers have quietly resumed negotiations on a tentative new contract to replace a writers pact that expired Oct. 31. The meetings, which are being held under a press blackout, follow two weeks of off-the-record talks between WGA brass and Disney CEO Robert Iger, News Corp. COO Peter Chernin and other media company executives.

The parties are playing beat-the-clock to see whether they can hammer out a new contract for the striking writers before the Oscars on Feb. 24. That would nix the threat of a WGA picket line or boycott of the Academy Awards by writers and likely SAG actors as well.

There were only two plausible outcomes from the now-concluded informal discussions: the positive one that has developed — with parties crafting actual contract language based on those discussions — or one in which the talks imploded anew and the parties went back to their separate corners while striking writers waited for SAG members to also go out of contract and join them on picket lines in July.

Should a tentative pact result from the more formal talks currently afoot, the big question will be whether WGA leadership recommends that members put down their picket signs and return to work during a ratification process. That's highly likely, but nothing is certain at this still-fluid point in the proceedings.

As for what has been hashed out in the informal round of talks and what remains, it likely will be apparent after terms are announced that the DGA's recently sealed tentative pact served as a template for the preliminary discussions. But there might be some notable tweaks from the directors' deal terms, and it's hard to imagine WGA brass telling their members they stopped drawing paychecks for three months only to accept identical terms to still-working directors.

The DGA contract is now out for a membership ratification vote, to be concluded by Feb. 20. On new media, the DGA pact contains some key gains, including first-time jurisdiction over original Internet content with production costs above $15,000 per minute.

The directors also secured new streamed-content compensation, with first-year payments for one-hour dramas amounting to about $1,200, followed by payment residuals equaling 2% of the distributor's gross for streaming more than a year after a program's initial broadcast. The DGA residual on downloaded TV content would be doubled and the film residual increased by 80% over the current rate.

Certain details of the directors' new-media terms have come under criticism from the striking writers. Whether such criticism translates into major alterations in the WGA's eventual deal terms is a key point of speculation, with a recent press blackout preventing detailed understanding of the guild's current negotiating posture.

The DGA pact increases basic pay by 3.5% per year for all categories except directors of primetime dramatic programs and daytime serials, who would get 3% annual pay boosts. Directors of high-budget basic cable dramas would be in line for additional boosts for series in second seasons and beyond.

Separately, SAG leaders recently went on record with skepticism that the DGA pact offers any sort of template for the performers guild's upcoming negotiations (HR 1/30). SAG's film and TV contract with the AMPTP expires June 30, but no timetable for talks on a new pact has been set.