Words fly as writers union bargaining slows

After just two contract negotiating sessions, a war of words between the Writers Guild of America and studio producers has gone public, yet the guild's negotiating committee chair insisted Wednesday that he remains optimistic about reaching an agreement. "We are confident that if our management partners in the negotiations bargain reasonably, we can bring to our membership a strong contract for approval," committee chair John Bowman said.

The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers won't meet again until next week at the earliest as they seek to strike a new minimum bargaining agreement to replace a film and TV pact set to expire Oct. 31. The parties took Tuesday off for separate caucusing about the exchange of proposals that marked Monday's opening bargaining session, then reconvened at AMPTP headquarters in Encino.

Bowman offered his assessment in a hastily called news conference marking the end of Wednesday's session. But despite those remarks, virtually nothing else said at the news conference -- a highly unusual event so early in guild-producer contract talks -- indicated any basis for optimism.

The notion of a press blackout during the talks -- something that has marked most recent Hollywood contract talks -- "hadn't come up" since the negotiations began Monday, Bowman said.

Asked why the guild was going public so early with its brief presentation of the WGA case for various compensation boosts, he said, "When you have the facts on your side, you like to communicate that."

Meanwhile, the AMPTP has called for a study on new-media compensation before discussing Internet residuals, but that was "more of a stall than a study," the WGA committee chair said. An alternate management proposal to revise current formulas for film and TV residuals was "more of a threat than an actual realistic position," he said.

Late Wednesday, AMPTP president Nick Counter said that the study proposal had been withdrawn.

"While we believe the WGA's rejection of a study is short-sighted and self-destructive, we did give them that option," Counter said. "The study would not only give us valuable insight into the new world and its impact on traditional media but also would give us insight on how to deal with the challenges and opportunities, while continuing to compensate writers under the current provisions and side-letters to their 2004 contract."

The AMPTP intends to bargain in good faith on the remaining proposals, he added. "We are committed to negotiating a deal that is fair to everyone," Counter said.

Bowman dismissed -- with support from a slide presentation showing certain profit projections for studio conglomerates -- any suggestion that the entertainment business is less profitable than before. He also denied that new-media businesses are too fledgling to tap for additional residuals.

"The future is here," Bowman said at the news conference, held at WGA West headquarters in Los Angeles. "It's right now, and it's very bright."

Bowman, a veteran of past WGA-AMPTP negotiations, said he felt that talks were going "about as usual" so far.

"It's very early," process first-timer and WGAW president Patric Verrone told a reporter. "We didn't want to negotiate early because we felt they wouldn't be ready to negotiate seriously. And even 3 1/2 months early, they don't seem ready to negotiate."

WGAW exec director David Young didn't attend the news conference, having lingered in Encino to try to work out a date for the next bargaining session. That wasn't immediately possible, however, as AMPTP has to work around contract talks it already booked with the Teamsters for next week.

Bowman was joined at the news conference by negotiating committee members including writer-director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls"), who criticized the proposal to move to profit-based residuals.

"On my last statement for (the 2002 hit movie) 'Chicago,' it's $70 million-$80 million in the red," Condon said. "That's very typical."

The AMPTP has based its proposal not on the net profitability of film and TV projects but on the recoupment of production, distribution and marketing costs. That's still too complicated an accounting process to tie to residuals, Bowman said.

"There's a lot of stuff that's dumped into production costs," he said. "The idea that we could all agree on what the production costs are is absurd."

It's understood that Wednesday's bargaining session became heated at times, though much of what was discussed was a fairly formal exchange of perspectives.

The day's presentations included one by Carol Lombardino, the AMPTP's executive vp business and legal affairs. She pressed the studio's case for delaying the payments of any residuals until costs on individual film and TV projects can be recouped.

"The source of our difficulties lies with the rapid technological and commercial changes that have been and are occurring within this industry," Lombardino said. "We as an industry feel compelled to respond to the competition that grows around us everyday, to manage our businesses in a prudent and responsible way, and to do everything in our power to continue the operation of our businesses and to support the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.

"That is why, as we respond to your proposals, no one should think (that) the industry blames writers for the current business conditions or that the industry's unwillingness to agree to new financial commitments reflects a lack of regard and appreciation for the job that writers do," she said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. No one should entertain even for a moment the notion that we consider the talents and efforts of writers to be insignificant."

The AMPTP issued copies of the executive's statement to the press.


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