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Labor Pains No Laughing Matter for Hollywood

June 20th, 2007 · 4 Comments

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Writer Guild’s latest deal a boost before tense labor talks

By Alex Ben Block

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HOLLYWOOD, CA. (Hollywood Today) 6/20/07 – The threat of a strike this fall by Hollywood writers is very real. The guild representing scribes this week won a victory in efforts to organize non-fiction television and reality shows; and it has the union’s activist leadership feeling empowered less than a month before entering the thorniest labor negotiations in two decades.

In announcing a “landmark deal” with Viacom on Tuesday to organize writers of four more of Comedy Central’s top shows, Writers Guild of America West President Patric M. Verrone pointedly referred to contract talks scheduled to start July 16 with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), representing about 350 movie and television producers.

“This is an important and historic achievement coming only weeks before our industry-wide negotiations begin,” Verrone said in a statement announcing the deal covering about 30 writers for “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “The Showbiz Show with David Spade,” “American Body Shop” and “Mind of Mencia.”

In August, the Writers Guild of America East secured the first ever agreement with producers of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” covering 14 show employees.

This was a rare victory. For more than a year the WGA East and West have been trying to organize writers on non-fiction, reality and quiz shows, with a minimum of success. In these talks the writers sought but failed to also organize Comedy Central shows “Lil Bush” and “Reno 911.” The WGA said in a statement it would continue that effort.

The deal with Viacom comes only a day after the Writer Guild announced that its members had over-whelmingly approved a tough talking pattern of demands for the upcoming talks with producers. The WGA contract expires Oct. 31, 2007.

The writers not only want to increase compensation in all areas, but also to set minimums for work on the Internet and other nontraditional media, increase payments for DVDs and other home video, get higher residuals from The CW network, and a higher rate on the downloading of movies and TV shows. They also want pay increases for writers on TV soap operas and quiz shows and higher contributions for pensions and medical costs.

The guild wants greater safe guards for writers who get a share of the gross on a hit show to insure that ancillary negotiations, such as syndication sales, are done at arms length. In other words, they want to make sure conglomerate can’t license a show to one of its other divisions or networks for a below market price, because that would cheat the writer.

To accomplish that they also want to organized reality programs; expand coverage in animation; and set standards for product integration, possibly even giving writers a say in how far sponsors can go in being part of a show.

Most of that does not sit well with management. Back in May, when the Writers first sent out the list of demands for a vote, AMPTP President J. Nicholas Counter III in Variety called it, “an assault on the entire industry.”

The AMPTP doesn’t even want to discuss paying greater fees for new media. Last year, the AMPTP offered to start negotiations early (this past January) to avoid a situation where producers feel the need to stockpile TV shows and movie, in case of a work stoppage. However, at that time the AMPTP would not consider discussing new media. So the writers, with new activist leadership since the 2004 contract, refused; essentially setting the stage for brinksmanship on both side.

The AMPTP has its own agenda. The producers wants cut backs on certain payments. Counter has said that when a show does not make a profit, the writers should not make as much on the deal. “We have been paying residuals on losses for far too long,” said Counter in May. “It is time to re-examine the entire economic landscape.”

In a statement this week after the WGA pattern of demands was approved, Counter said: “The producers look forward to the start of discussions with the writers, where we will all be seeking ways to deal with the revolutionary changes impacting our industry. We are determined to adapt successfully to the times and avoid the fate of the newspaper and music industries, which ignored change until it was too late.

“That means that during our negotiations we will need to find ways to restore the balance between the risks we take and the rewards we share,” continued Counter.

All of the major Hollywood studios are owned by much larger conglomerates that try to avoid unions when possible in all their businesses to save money; and have the resources to stockpile shows and take a strike for an extended time if that becomes necessary.

While this will be the first industry wide negotiation for the new WGA leadership, Counter has been at it since 1982 when the AMPTP was founded.

Each and every time Counter postures in advance and typically paints the WGA leaders as unrealistic and too aggressive. He reportedly has been especially disturbed by statements made by Verrone and the chief WGA negotiation tk young.

Counter often has engaged in pre-negotiations posturing to paint the WGA as overly aggressive and unrealistic. But he’s been particularly perturbed by the conduct of Verrone and Young with regard to efforts to get payments for product placement on TV shows; attempts to organize reality TV writers, and sponsorship of lawsuits by reality-show writers alleging wage and overtime violations. The AMPTP has also sided with Disney in a decision to pay iPod residuals at the lower home video rate, rather than the higher pay TV rate.

In the last talks the writers wanted more DVD residuals but the producers prevailed. That led to anger among many members. Verrone led an activist slate to victory in the September 2005 election, and has announced plans to run for a second two year term. After Verrone arrived, the new board fired WGA West Executive Director John McLean, and replaced him with David Young.

What happens with the writers is important because the AMPTP also faces talks next with the increasingly activist and militant leadership of the Screen Actors Guild, led by President Alan Rosenberg. SAG’s contract runs until June 2008. The actors are also itching to talk about payments for new media.

A strike is no sure thing but networks and production companies are already making contingency plans. That alone could lead to a burst of production, which would result in a drop in employment sometime in the future if there isn’t a strike.

While declaring this the toughest talks they have faced in twenty years, the leadership of the guild has also signaled that there is a deal to be made. Assistant Executive Director Charles Slocum wrote an essay in “Written By,” the WGA West’s official monthly magazine earlier this year. “As the cycle plays out,” predicted Slocum, “the point will be reached when problem-solving overcomes rhetoric and a deal is struck.”

A list of writers on the 2007 negotiating committee: John F. Bowman, Chair

Neal Baer, Marc Cherry, Bill Condon, Carlton Cuse, Stephen Gaghan, Terry George,

David A. Goodman, Carl Gottlieb, Susannah Grant, Brian Koppelman, Carol Mendelsohn, Marc Norman, Shawn Ryan, Robin Schiff, Melissa Salmons and Ed Solomon. ALTERNATES: John Auerbach, Ron Bass, Walter Bernstein, David Black, Richard Dresser, Howard Michael Gould, Mark Gunn, Robert King, Aaron Mendelsohn, Pippin Parker, Bob Schneider, Steven Schwartz, Dan Wilcox and Larry Wilmore

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