WGA, AMPTP to Begin Negotiations Thursday

Contract talks with a broad agenda will begin with less than two months before the current agreement expires.

The WGA and AMPTP have finally made a date: They’ll begin contract negotiations Thursday, according to a joint statement released Tuesday. No other information was disclosed.

The current guild agreement expires in two months, on May 1.

SAG, AFTRA and the DGA have already negotiated and ratified new agreements, which take effect when their existing agreements expire June 30. The Writers Guild held off setting a date, operating on a strategy that emphasizes late negotiations as a source of strength.

Early last month, the WGA membership overwhelmingly ratified a proposed "Pattern of Demands." That document, a wide-ranging outline of negotiating priorities, does not contain specific proposals, dollars or percentages -- nor angry rhetoric -- but seeks various monetary increases plus significant changes in the script development process.

A cover note that was sent out in December with the Pattern of Demands said there was "no … single galvanizing issue" in this negotiating cycle. That signals that a strike is extremely unlikely, but whether the WGA will end up working without a new contract for a period after the current one expires remains a possibility. That happened in the 2001 and 2004 negotiating cycles.

Among the guild’s goals are increases in a variety of areas: minimums, employer pension and health contributions, new-media residuals and residuals for made for pay and made for basic cable programs. SAG/AFTRA and the DGA got 2% annual wage bumps and a one-time 1.5% increase in P&H. It’s assumed the WGA will end up with the same numbers.

In addition, SAG and AFTRA received a slight improvement in made for new-media programming, and the DGA obtained a higher wage tier in made for basic cable.

The fact that neither union achieved improvements in both these areas suggests that it would be difficult for the WGA to do so either.

In a "Contract 2011 Bulletin" sent to members last fall, the guild detailed four new-media deal points, none of which the other unions achieved. They were: shortening the 17/24-day free initial streaming window; increasing ad-supported streaming residuals; reviewing the rules for clips used in new media; and addressing limitations in coverage of made-for-new media programs.

The other unions also accepted a shift from first-class air travel to new rules favoring business class and coach. The industry practice of “pattern bargaining,” in which the deals for each of the above-the-line unions mirror each other in many respects, suggests that the WGA will end up with the same revisions. However, since writers travel to locations less frequently than do actors or directors, the shift will result in less discomfort for the WGA – but also less savings for the studios.

The development issues the guild identified in its Pattern of Demands could result in contentious negotiations. These include “prewrites” – in which writers are asked to prepare uncompensated treatments – and sweepstakes pitching.

The latter is a practice in which a studio asks multiple writers to pitch their approaches to a movie idea proposed by the studio. The studio may then ask a number of those writers to come back for meetings repeatedly, using the process as an unpaid way of having numerous writers refine the studio’s initial idea. In the end, the studio hires – and pays for – just one writer (at least until it orders rewrites).

Creative rights matters such as sweepstakes pitching may be particularly touchy, since the issues are not just monetary. That means that studios’ creative management, in addition to business executives, will have to weigh in on the studios’ negotiating posture.

Another guild sore point: the prevalence of one-step deals, rather than the multi-step deals that predated the 2007-08 strike and the troubled economy. Writers dislike one-step deals not only because the money is less (unless the writer is then hired to do revisions), but also because it gives the writer only one shot to get it right.

Another money issue is a demand for an increase in home video residuals. The unions dislike the quarter-century-old formula so much that the WGA called it “the hated DVD formula” in the last round of negotiations. That’s because 80% of DVD revenue is swept off the table before the residual is even calculated.

The studios respond that they need that revenue to offset the losses they contend most films incur in theatrical release. Ironically, and worrisome to the studios, the home video business itself has declined precipitously in the past five years as consumers moved to Netflix, Redbox and various streaming options.

How hard the WGA will push on home video remains to be seen. In the last negotiating cycle, the AMPTP labeled the proposal a “roadblock” and the WGA ultimately withdrew it. An increase is unlikely.

The WGA also wants to limit option periods for renewal of employment on episodic series. That means that networks and producers would have to decide more quickly whether to pick up a writer for the next season, reducing management’s flexibility and increasing writers’.

Also included in the Pattern of Demands is a proposal for animation jurisdiction. This was another AMPTP “roadblock” in the past cycle, and the WGA dropped the demand. Notably, the president of the guild at that time was Patric Verrone, an animation writer.

Another jurisdictional proposal -- in motion capture -- is somewhat confusing, because motion capture is a production process, not a script category.

The outlined increase in made for pay residuals is a WGA perennial. The guild’s formula in this area is less lucrative than the DGA’s or SAG/AFTRA’s because of missteps by the WGA in the early 1980s. The studios have agreed to incremental increases a number of times, but the structure of the formula has not changed.

Unknown is how the Pattern of Demands compares with the initial demands made by SAG/AFTRA and the DGA. Those unions don’t issue such a document and usually keep their opening moves confidential.

The WGA negotiating committee is co-chaired by John Bowman and Billy Ray and includes Alfredo Barrios, Andrew Bergman, John Brancato, Patti Carr, Jonathan Fernandez, David A. Goodman, Chip Johannessen, Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore, Jeremy Pikser, Shawn Ryan, Thania St. John, Stephen Schiff and Mike Scully.