AMPTP breaks off talks. Again.

by Paul William Tenny

For the second time since the negotiations began, the AMPTP (studios+networks hereby referred to as either "big media" or "management") has walked away from the table once they realized the other side wasn't simply going to do what they were told, and that's really what this fight has been boiled down to.

If you read what Nikke Finke says about the mental state of these CEOs (and use some of that Hollywood pixie dust to suspend believe for a moment that she's not being played like a drum) and believe what she says about them, then it's not hard to believe that what this represents is a lot of stately older white men holding their breath as long as they could, and then stomping out of the room like six-year-olds who are "very angry right now" and genuinely shocked that their $24 million dollar salaries are not being obeyed by a bunch of working class scrappers.

Sure, that's rhetorical and not terribly helpful, but the point remains: the only side to walk away from the negotiating table is management, and they've done it twice.

It had been speculated that management was on the verge of walking out, though with Finke's track record of reporting on this series of talks, that could have meant both sides were actually read to sign a new pact and end the strike within 24 hours. If you guess enough times though, eventually you'll end up right.

First, let me address a couple of things so I can make sure the spin is seen for what it is.

I'm told Thursday's talks began at 10 AM, and both the WGA and AMPTP had a brief discussion about streaming, made-for-web content pay and jurisdiction, and electronic sell-through. Then one of the negotiators from the network and studio CEOs' side declared, "The DVD formula is good for you, and you should embrace it with open arms."

Just a couple of days after writers called the strike, a story was published in Ars Technica detailing a new partnership between Paramount and Warner Brothers to sell DVDs in piracy-laden China for $3 each. Perfect copies of recently releases are sold on the streets for as little as $1.50, according to the story, while the Chinese government does little to nothing to stop it. In a bit of hilarity, I'm pretty sure China just banned all foreign movies (or at least American movies) for something like six months in part because of strong American and international pressure on China to stop allowing its citizens to steal every movie they've ever owned.

Also, supposedly, because American movies absolutely crush domestic productions because Chinese films apparently suck so hard.

Contrast this new anti-piracy initiative against the anonymous quote above, that the "DVD formula is good for you" and that writers should "embrace it open arms." That formula nets writers about four cents per DVD sold while the sum above-the-line talent gets about 40 cents, against the disc and packaging manufacturer getting about fifty cents. The rest, as far as anyone knows, goes back to the studio as profit against their own costs which I guess would include marketing the DVD release, and however much money was lost making films that year.

So then consider that not only does management think four cents per sale is fair, but that by their own actions during this strike, they can afford to sell discs at $3 each overseas will still paying that 90 cents to the creative talent. Look at the DVD prices for any new release in America, and I think it's obvious whose bullshitting who here.

The statement should be restated thusly:

Then one of the negotiators from the network and studio CEOs' side declared, "The DVD formula is good for us, and you can pry it from our cold, dead fingers."

As if that solitary act wasn't enough to tell you about how dishonest and narcissistic management is and has become with all the power being concentrated within a few extremely wealthy men due almost entirely to media consolidation, it just doesn't stop there - it keeps going, right into a schoolyard and eventually into a gutter.

(This follows what happened on Wednesday when the AMPTP negotiators asked to break early to celebrate the first day of Chanukah -- yet their official statement later claimed it had been the writers side who didn't want to negotiate late into the evening...)

That proceeded management walking away from the table while saying the WGA made them do it (oh, please, grow up) and followed an identical walkout the first time in early November. Ask yourself which side wants and deal and is most interested in a fair deal, the side that has remained at the table asking management to stop bending them over a table, or the side that has walked out twice and could afford to pay the writers what they are asking for just by not putting Tom Cruise and Chris Tucker in a movie for a year.

Think that's a joke? The trio of Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, and Brett Ratner made somewhere in the realm of $75 million for Rush Hour 3 (that's just the payment to those three individuals, not the films budget). The WGA estimates its new media proposal would cost management (that's all the networks/studios combined) just about $50 million per year, about 33% less than what two actors and one director made for a single movie from a single studio this year alone.

I've argued before and I still think this holds true: this was nothing but a sucker job to get the showrunners back on the job to finish the episodes they still had completed scripts for. Basically every fall show is out of new episodes now from what I gather, meaning now that the showrunners really don't have anything to do now, suddenly the AMPTP has stormed away from the table.

Talk about being born yesterday..

And finally, this:

The Directors Guild is widely seen as more sympathetic to the studios and less militant than the Writers Guild, whose negotiating position could be undermined if the AMPTP strikes a deal first with the directors. The DGA contract expires next June.

I touched on this a couple of days ago and question again if this is "conventional beltway wisdom" of the political ilk, or is it reality. The way you look at one thing colors how you look at something else in comparison. The warmer your body is, for instance, the colder a pool will feel. After you've been in it for a while, it doesn't feel cold anymore, even though the pools temperature hasn't changed at all - your body's has.

It's easy to point to the WGA who has a history of striking and call them militant, but in reality I think that's more a reflection on how weak and tepid the other guilds are in their inaction. SAG and DGA may look more moderate than the WGA but really, is that just because they have the will to strike to get something? Isn't that the entire point of a union?

Auto workers and stage play labor have both struck to break an impasse with management this year and while both those actions were short, they got the job done. Workers hold all the cards because they produce what the other side wants and needs. A writer can bus tables, deliver mail, teach or whatever, but a film/TV studio can't just up and start manufacturing scissors or make Christmas cards. If they want to make movies and TV shows again, they'll have no choice but to give in eventually.

So is a union "militant" when they're simply doing what a good union does? No, I think it's the passivity of the other two guilds that color our judgment of the WGA. In reality, neither SAG and especially not the DGA are really moderates. Not that actors really need a union, since the studios throw money at them by the bank load.

It's the extraordinary passivity of the DGA that makes the WGA look so aggressive. When one union sits on its backside and doesn't fight for its members at all it will tend to make those other guilds that do have guts look a little nuts. But that's not reality.

Nor is this about blaming directors individually or even collectively - it's the union leadership that's responsible for that. The members share in it since they put that leadership in place, but what does it really matter when SAG and DGA can sit on their hands while the WGA does all the work for them?

It's time to show some real solidarity here. Marching on a picket line when there's nothing else to do is one thing, but there's better more effective things to be done. DGA needs to stay put and SAG needs to let it be known that summer will not bring respite for management, but a second level of hell if they don't bargain in good faith.
in Labor


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