Voices from the strike

by Paul William Tenny

Many apologies for not posting anything since Thursday; there hasn't been any real "reportable" progress on the talks between the AMPTP and the WGA, which is kind of what I had expected would happen. The chances that the DGA's deal with big media was going to be close enough to settle on something similar within a few days were nearly nonexistent. There probably is a lot of good stuff in that pact, but as SAG has recently said, without actually seeing the contract in all its glory, nobody can really say for sure.

There are enough areas of concern that were not adequately addressed in the press releases to foresee a less combative, yet still contentious negotiations going forward. Regardless of what John Wells says, there is still a lot of work to do, even just based on the press releases, to get a writers contract up to where it needs to be.
Here are a few key points from SAG President Alan Rosenberg:

  • The formula for new media "electronic sell through (paid downloads or EST)" is based on the higher distributor's gross revenues, rather than producer's gross revenues, but the definition of distributor's gross is vague and not sufficient to protect against manipulation by the employers. .. In the tri-guild audits under the current guilds' collective bargaining agreements (including the DGA's), for example, some audits are still open after eight years, because of problems with enforcement under current contract language.

  • ..the press release does not use "arms-length transaction" or "fair market value test" language, and says only, "If our exhibitor or retailer is part of the producer's corporate family, (DGA has) improved provisions for challenging any suspect transactions." This language could mean anything, and certainly does not guarantee against self-dealing by media conglomerates to hurt creative talent.

    Fair market value and distributor's gross are two issues that the AMPTP demanded that the WGA take off the table, along with four other items, which resulted in talks breaking off in December. Now after prolonging the strike for another month, the AMPTP has negotiated these two issues with the DGA.

  • The concession by the DGA in the new deal, to use the formula that management improperly imposed under the current agreement, is an AMPTP roll-back. The new agreed-upon percentages for television (.7%) or feature films (.65%) are much lower in the DGA deal than the percentage that the DGA claims is appropriate in its arbitration (1.2%). And these "increases", which are based on the discredited DVD formula, do not increase residuals on the sale of DVD's, but only apply to downloads; despite the fact that DVD's will generate billions in revenue to the studios and networks for years to come.

  • The very high thresholds in the DGA deal for full jurisdiction for made for new media content may well incentivize non-union work below the threshold amounts ($15, 000/minute, $300,000/program, $500,000/series, whichever is lower). What will stop the industry from making cheap, non-union pilots at below $300,000 per episode, for testing first on the Internet before the productions migrate to broadcast or basic cable?

    Your Guild has signed 210 Internet producers to SAG contracts in the past two years and only seven of them (or 3%) would fall inside the high DGA jurisdictional thresholds.

Now, John Wells loves this deal and that doesn't surprise me at all. From what I understand, Wells has on at least one occasion screwed his own writers to save money on one of his productions. In other words, he saved his own production company money, at the expense of the writers.

I really couldn't care less what this guy thinks of the deal, if anything, I'd be even more suspect. If Wells likes it, then it probably does stink pretty bad. And note how he insists that writers owe the DGA for getting this deal for them, not bothering to mention that the DGA wouldn't have even asked for much of this stuff if the WGA hadn't gone on strike trying to get it. And this is one of the guys who has been negotiating for the WGA all this time?


I really like what Ron Moore said about this:

The last thing we need is for writers to be bitching anonymously to the media (like Patrick Goldstein claimed in an incredibly slanted column this week) or, worse yet, for high-profile members (like a certain former president of the Guild) to be sending out public "letters" saying how the DGA deal is so great and putting public pressure on the negotiators to just take it already at the very moment they need to keep all their cards to themselves. It's both foolish and self-destructive and they should all know better.

If the DGA got this deal, then it's reasonable to believe the WGA can negotiate a better one. Maybe they can't get a ton more, but if there was room to get here, there's room to get there. And lest we not forget, the DGA didn't even really care about the main sticking point of the strike: new media residuals. They were probably going to take whatever management offered them, and only got what they did because of the WGA.

Here are some statements from writers over the past couple of weeks, care of United Hollywood:

Phil Alden Robinson - "First, there's nothing in the DGA deal relating to Separated Rights, since directors don't get them. Only writers do. I think everyone agrees it's mandatory we shore up these rights in New Media. Our negotiators are working on this as we speak."

Robert J. Elisberg - "Last week, Michael Cieply wrote once-again about his perception of "fissures" in the Writers Guild. It's a theme of his. Back during the 1988 WGA strike he specialized in writing about such "fissures" for another paper. There was a very organized, though small group then, Union Blues: they made a great deal of noise, and in the end, that's all they did. Mr. Cieply then took time off to become a producer at Sony Studios. And now, he is again writing about his perceived fissures in the Writers Guild."

Justine Bateman - "Currently, writers and directors both make approximately $20,000 for the first prime-time rerun of an hour-long episode. The residual gradually decreases on any later reruns (if the writer or director is lucky enough to get more reruns). So the directors' deal potentially gives up 97% of the first prime-time residual while the corporations can "rerun" their work infinitely over an entire year. It seems to me that if the DGA formula for streaming is ratified, the networks will be on a fast track to never, ever rerun our work on broadcast TV."

Tom Fontana - "The original content jurisdiction seems like smoke and mirrors -- how many TV series (made for Internet) in the next three years will have a budget of $500,000? The highest budget I've heard for a current production is $350,000. Besides, when has a budget ever come before a script is written? That means while directors will be hired under a DGA contract after the script is done and the budget is set, we writers will have no union contract to protect us. Wouldn't it be better to require all AMPTP members to use a WGA contract no matter what the budget is?"

Ron Moore - "The sheer number of arrows these people take on a daily basis on the internet alone rival the incoming fire at the Little Bighorn and it's something of a miracle that not a single one of them has simply let loose in a tirade of vitriol and bile at their tormentors in some public forum. I've heard them accused of everything from seeking personal political gain to seeking to foment communist revolution over the course of the strike, but time and again they just keep coming back to the basic issues of fairness and justice in what they're seeking for all of us.

They deserve our trust. And they damned well have earned it.

Good stuff, please read it and stay tuned for more.

While we all wait, the WGA continues signing fair deals with production companies and studios that are more interested in getting back to work under fair terms, than they are prolonging this strike and acting like impudent children.

As expected, Lionsgate has signed an interim contract with the Writers Guild of America, and in a wonderful surprise -- at least to me:

"Marvel Studios' signing of an interim agreement with the Writers Guild is more good news for our membership," said WGAE President Michael Winship and WGAW President Patric M. Verrone. "Marvel is committed to fairly compensating their writers and now they can move forward with their planned production schedule."

"We're very excited about our summer releases, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and look forward to resuming work with writers on our future projects including Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man, and The Avengers," said Marvel Studios Chairman David Maisel.

The DGA contract is a good starting point, and hopefully a successful one. I mean really, the AMPTP can't walk out of talks for a third straight time, can they? If they do, at that point, you've really get to get with reality and call this what it is: a lockout.
in Business, Digital Media, Labor


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