EXCLUSIVE: WGA East Executive Director Optimistic on Guild Negotiating Goals

Lowell Peterson also confirms that there is no date set for negotiations.

WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson expressed quiet confidence in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that the guild will achieve improvements in new media when it negotiates its next contract with the AMPTP. He added, “We’ll see what happens.”

That confidence comes despite the lack of any significant changes in new media in the just-ratified SAG/AFTRA and DGA deals. SAG/AFTRA achieved a revision in the definition of “covered performer,” but this was a relatively minor and actor-specific modification.

The industry practice known as “pattern bargaining” means that the WGA will have an uphill fight obtaining any meaningful changes in new media. That practice means that the deal obtained by the first union to negotiate in a given contract cycle generally becomes the template for the deal to be adopted by the others as well, albeit with minor variations and union-specific features.

Peterson, however, said that the WGA rejects pattern bargaining. There’s no legal requirement that the guild accept that approach, although it’s been the custom for many years. Indeed, in the 2007-2008 negotiations and strike, the WGA new media deal tracked the DGA’s very closely.

In a “Contract Bulletin” sent to member several months, the WGA identified four priorities in new media: shortening the 17- or 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 AMPTP declined to comment for this story.

In the THR interview, Peterson also shared his thoughts on “sweepstakes pitching,” 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.

Not surprisingly, the WGA opposes this process, and Peterson said that “there have already been meetings regarding the impact on writers’ careers and the quality of motion pictures.” However, he said that no specific contract demands had been formulated yet.

Peterson added that sweepstakes pitching “is not doing the audience or the box office any favors.” He said that a worse product results when writers “become alienated from their work.”

Another point of contention for the WGA is the prevalence of one-step deals, in which a studio hires the writer to produce a single draft, then engages that writer to proceed further only if the executives like what they’ve seen. This approach contrasts with the more common practice several years ago, in which writers were guaranteed a first draft and several revisions.

The single draft model not only can reduce an individual writer’s income and amp up the competition between writers, it creates more pressure on the writer to get the story right the first time. In addition, according to Peterson, the single draft approach “creates an incentive for studios to squeeze the writer for free drafts.” He expressed hope that the guild could make progress in this area.

Finally, Peterson confirmed that no date has been set yet for negotiations with the AMPTP. That’s generating concern that the WGA may not schedule negotiations until March, and engage in a brinksmanship strategy in order to seek improvements in areas that SAG/AFTRA and the DGA did not. An ambitious “Pattern of Demands” -- an outline of negotiating priorities -- is currently out to WGA members for their approval. It’s due back by Jan. 24.

The WGA is actually two separate unions, WGA West and WGA East. They negotiate the AMPTP contract together.

Peterson did not address wage increases or pension and health, but that’s because THR did not ask him to do so. The guild has previously identified pension and health as a priority. SAG, AFTRA and the DGA achieved 2% annual wage increases and a one-time 1.5% increase in employer contributions to the pension and health plans. If pattern bargaining holds sway, as is highly likely in these subjects, the WGA contract will contain those provisions as well.

Also a notable feature of those three unions’ deal is a shift from first-class air travel to new rules favoring business class and coach. Pattern bargaining suggests that the WGA will also end up seeing this change, particularly since motion picture writers travel to production locations less often than do directors or actors. That means the concession would be less significant for the writers – but also, that it will save the studios less money than the parallel changes in the SAG, AFTRA and DGA deals.