WGA to counter with a new plan

Studio reps launch a PR offensive

The WGA will respond to studio reps' latest contract proposal on new-media pay by advancing its own new proposals.

That's the word from a source close to the guild negotiating team, which caucused on negotiating issues during the weekend ahead of reconvening Tuesday with studio reps.

It might prompt limited optimism that actual horse-trading seems finally in progress in the difficult contract talks between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. But anybody still inclined to forecast chances of an imminent deal between Hollywood writers and studio reps would be well advised to cool it for a while.

The simple fact is that nobody knows where this roller-coaster ride of collective bargaining will end.

Today marks the 29th day of the WGA strike, with labor and management again retreating to separate corners until the next negotiating session. And with a recently implemented press blackout on the contract talks now lifted, the parties have returned to trading verbal broadsides.

Heads of studio-parent conglomerates have mostly been silent about the prospects for ending the strike, quietly assuring Wall Street since the work stoppage began Nov. 5 that all would be OK (HR 11/29). But it seems that pinstriped group decided to issue a collective message of no more Mr. Nice Guy.

In a plan orchestrated after the last bargaining session between the WGA and the AMPTP, several top company heads smiled and dialed members of the Fourth Estate on Friday. The intent seemed to be to convey management frustrations with the guild and its chief negotiator, WGA West executive director David Young.

"I do think this whole thing calls into question David Young's ability to make a deal," a top management exec said. "He has no experience in these sorts of negotiations, and so perhaps there is something to that theory that they're not capable of making a deal.

"You can say what you want about the AMPTP, but for 20 years they've been able to make a deal," the exec added. "The fact is that you have to wonder about the current leadership at the WGA and its ability to get something done here."

The criticism followed a Thursday negotiating session in which the AMPTP offered new proposals for new-media compensation that it claimed would "deliver more than $130 million in additional compensation above and beyond the more than $1.3 billion writers already receive each year."

The WGA asked to study the proposals and reconvene negotiations Tuesday. Then the guild issued a public statement dismissing the proposals.

"For streaming television episodes, the companies proposed a residual structure of a single fixed payment of less than $250 for a years reuse of an hourlong program (and) for theatrical product, they are offering no residuals whatsoever for streaming," the guild said.

Management sources confirmed the figure, stressing that it wasn't any sort of final offer. Yet they also claimed current guild leaders fail to grasp the give-and-take nature of collective-bargaining protocol.

So they might be surprised to know that guild negotiators have been discussing exactly that: how to respond to the AMPTP's streaming proposal.

A well-placed source said labor negotiators were surprised to learn that management had switched from a "variable payment" approach on streaming compensation to one using the fixed $250 payment.

WGA negotiators were to decide in weekend caucusing whether to respond with a proposal that incorporates a more lucrative fixed payment for streamed content or instead to continue pursuing a means of sharing in distributor grosses.

"I remain hopeful, but obviously I'm dubious," the high-ranking company exec said. "It's unclear why, if they want to make a deal, they would wait 96 hours even to respond (formally). Certainly the ball is with their court, but it makes you wonder if they are they capable of making a deal."

WGA negotiating committee chairman John Bowman rejected any notion that guild negotiators are too inexperienced or unskilled to construct a deal with the AMPTP.

"From my sense, the problem with the negotiations is that (the AMPTP) never wanted to deal with the Internet, and they are only now really coming around to the fact that they have to," Bowman told The Hollywood Reporter. "But it is something that they do repeatedly, trying to make this about personalities. It's not about personalities."

The WGA also has been concerned about a compensation-free "promotional window" that studios had wanted penciled into any compensation agreement on streamed content. The latest AMPTP proposal sidestepped that impasse by tying streaming compensation not to advertising streams but rather to licensing fees, a company source said.

Also Friday, the AMPTP distributed copies of a letter and "fact sheet" sent to update member companies on the status of talks and the latest management proposals, which the group has dubbed the New Economic Partnership.

"This could mean an increase up to $31,000 over the three-year life of the contract for working writers, which would be on top of the current average writer's compensation of more than $200,000 a year," the AMPTP said.

"Between now and Tuesday, we hope that the discussion about our proposed New Economic Partnership will focus on the facts," the studio group said. "For instance, the allegation that the New Economic Partnership and its groundbreaking proposals to extend and increase payments and jurisdiction for the writers in three wholly new areas of new media is somehow a 'rollback' does nothing to advance a substantive dialogue over these issues."

On Friday, the WGA West board e-mailed members an explanation of why it had labeled part of the latest management proposal a "rollback."

"Currently, the writer of a 30-minute primetime TV show makes almost $21,000," the board wrote. "The conglomerates are proposing that if that writer wrote the same show for the Internet, his or her initial compensation would be $2,600. That's a rollback of 88%."

The guild's formal response to management's latest proposals will be scrutinized for any sign of new flexibility on the labor side of the negotiations, a top studio exec said.

Barring such evidence, studio chiefs are likely to start considering whether it's time for the AMPTP to turn its attention away from talks with the WGA and toward starting early contract talks with the DGA, the exec said. The DGA is under contract with the AMPTP until June 30, 2008.

Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.