Hollywood blasts writers' union leadership

Movie and TV production is a step closer to being disrupted. Labor relations in Hollywood have gone from bad to worse. Sputtering talks between Hollywood movie and TV writers and an association representing the studios and networks are so bad; after six sessions, the producer’s spokesman J. Nicholas Counter on Friday went public with his unhappiness: “This is the most frustrating and futile attempt at bargaining that anyone on the AMPTP negotiating team has encountered in Guild negotiation history. “

“The WGA leadership apparently has no intention to bargain in good faith,” continued an angry Counter. “The WGA leadership is hidebound to strike. We are farther apart today than when we started and the only outcome we see is a disaster engineered by the present leadership of the WGA.”

The WGA issued a brief response to Counter’s statement., WGA head negotiator John Bowman and committee members Susannah Grant, Neal Baer, Bill Condon, and Shawn Ryan signaled their continued resistance to management proposals that would dramatically reshape the compensation structure for writers, eliminate writers credits on TV shows and essentially cut them out of revenue from new media including the Internet altogether.

“While the WGA remains determined to make a fair deal, at this stage of the negotiations the AMPTP is still stuck on its rollback proposals including profit-based residuals,” said the WGA in a statement late Friday afternoon. “Our members will not stand for that. The entertainment industry is successful and growing like never before. Writers, whose creativity is at the heart of that success and growth, are committed to sharing in it.”

The writers are talking about a management proposal that would re-adjust compensation from a system based on revenue generated, to one of compensation based on when a project becomes profitable. The writers say the only way to count is when revenue first comes in, and point to a history of lawsuits and complaints about Hollywood bookkeeping.

So the stage is set for months more of labor unrest in Hollywood, whether or not writers actually hit the picket line when their contract is up on Halloween. It is unlikely writers would immediate strike. There would more likely be a period while the writers attempt to work without a contract; or on an extension of the existing contract.

Some studios, however, have already put out word among agent and writers that they may not put anything new into development after Oct. 31, when the contract is up. Instead, the studios and networks are said to be stockpiling scripts, projects and shows. They have speeded up production and given the go ahead to more new projects than usual.

Movie studios as well are said to be building up their inventory of unreleased movies, so that they can spread out existing product beyond the contract period.

These talks come at a historic turning point for the entertainment industry, when the old forms of distribution are being shoved aside by a new generation of technology that personalizes the message in new ways. The big companies are making big profits but they are concerned that they could suddenly be made obsolete. The writers want to make sure they are compensated for their labors however the content is delivered to paying customers.

“The Companies and the Guilds must work together to re-position this industry to respond to the changing markets and the changing world,” Counter has said. “We must come together to avoid what has happened to industries that deny change or failed to adapt fast enough.

The WGA, still smarting two decades later from being cut out of a serious share of the home video bonanza, isn’t buying. In a message to members, the writers posted their point of view: “The companies seek to do to new media what they did 25 years ago to home video, and worse. As stated in

our “Declaration of Principles,” we will insist that re-use of our content in any medium must be fairly compensated… we know that the AMPTP companies are taking in billions of dollars in new media revenues. We will not accept the arguments about “unproven business model” that were used in the home video negotiations to deprive us of a fair share of revenues from this incredibly lucrative exploitation of our work.”

Most likely, the solution won’t be found until the middle of next year, around the end of June 2008 when the contracts for the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, as well as the Directors Guild are all up. The writers and actors, both with activist leadership, have been working together for months, but the directors are likely to take their own course, starting early negotiations early next year.

There is a huge gulf between labor and management in this round of negotiations for contract with writers, actors and directors. There are no easy solutions and there will be no quick answers.


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