Below is a composite Q&A that’s the truth your Hollywood Guild leaders are saying in private and not telling you to your faces at a time when nearly all writers, actors, and directors are hanging by their fingernails to maintain their livelihoods under the studio and network rollbacks. Today the WGA membership voted to ratify their new TV/Theatrical Contract reached last month with the AMPTP. I was shocked and appalled by the lack of public dissemination of info by the Guild to its members during the process. But this kind of secrecy has marked all of the Hollywood Guilds dealings with its memberships on these contract negotiations and ratification votes. That’s to cover up the fact that neither SAG nor the DGA nor the WGA bothered to bargain hard for pay increases or barely at all for New Media increases despite promises to that effect during the last contract go-rounds.
I emailed and spoke at length with several members of the WGA negotiating team and board of directors to be able to collect the following behind-the-scenes information (see composite Q&A below). What I learned goes way beyond the ratification ballot statement from negotiating committee co-chairs John Bowman and Billy Ray explaining why the talks had been completed in little more than two weeks blaming “an economy still recovering from a deep recession; an economic pattern set in negotiations with other unions; and the willingness of the Companies to address the Guild’s most pressing economic need, regarding the solvency of the pension plan.” Or the cover letter from WGA West president John Wells and WGA East president Michael Winship that said, “We highly endorse ratification of this contract” and noted the unanimous recommendation of the negotiating committee, WGA West Board and WGA East Council.
Really? REALLY? Then why did one of the above WGA leaders email me to agree when I crapped all over this lousiest of lousy WGA deals with the AMPTP when it was announced a month ago: “Off the record, your analysis of this deal is spot on.”
Who else agreed with me? Stephen Diamond, the Santa Clara University Law professor and one-time candidate for SAG’s executive director, who called the deal a “clean sweep for big Hollywood studios as WGA negotiations end” and “the final domino in this year’s Hollywood collective bargaining round”.
My analysis included calling this the worst deal writers had ever been handed. Saying the Writers Guild leadership clearly decided it had no leverage after the Actors and Directors Guilds threw them under the bus by accepting bad contracts and even the WGA membership gave them no hand by overwhelmingly (and understandably) opposing any mention of a strike. Noting that the Big Media companies finding their financial footing again after the depths of the economic crisis. Stressing that New Media increases have gone the way of the VCR and the DVD: what was negotiated first is what you’re stuck with now and seemingly forever if the AMPTP continues to have its way. Laughing at the flimsy new meetings on sweepstakes pitching and one-step deals, and “contract provisions [which] have been added that require each studio to send to its creative executives a bulletin stating clearly that spec writing is not to be condoned” as if this will stop these hated but institutionalized practices. It’s such a WGA betrayal after guild leadership and Hollywood agencies pledged to work together to stop the studios’ blatant exploitation of movie scribes.
I had long predicted Hollywood could most likely expect quick and easy negotiations this time around. So let’s see… SAG/AFTRA spent just 6 weeks of jointly negotiating with the studios and networks on a new 3-year TV/Theatrical contract. The DGA took just 3 weeks and change. And the WGA could have bargained right up until its May 1st when its current contract ends but didn’t. The moguls behind the AMPTP always intended to negotiate with the writers last (even though their pact was expiring sooner) to ensure there would be the most Hollywood pressure (synonymous with antagonism) towards them if they negotiated too hard. Although SAG/AFTRA and the DGA traded information during their talks, they left the WGA out in the cold.
The whole point of this lead-in to contract negotiations for for all the Hollywood Guilds to better coordinate bargaining in order to present a united front to the AMPTP. Promises were made to “next time” secure better wages, benefits, working conditions. Even the AMPTP pledged it would reopen bargaining over those paltry New Media revenues. True, no one wanted another strike. But was the only alternative for the WGA to wimp out like the other Guilds? So now all the Hollywood Guilds rubber-stamped what crumbs the AMPTP offered despite this rapidly improving economy. The DGA was first to make it plain early on that they weren’t going for big wages (just a 2% increase) or even a better New Media deal. Instead the DGA negotiators were focusing on increased Health Plan and Pension contributions. Same with SAG/AFTRA. The WGA also focused on the pension plan. But all the writers I know in the guild who aren’t yet or once were big names are most concerned about losing their health insurance. Nothing for them.
I’d been pressing the Writers Guild with questions to respond to my analysis that WGA negotiators caved to the studios and networks. I’ve now collected their off-the-record answers (with the proviso that the responders not be identified) and put it into a Q&A format. If you read this and realize how much you and your fellow Hollywood Guild members got played, then hasn’t the time come to throw out all the current bums and install new union leadership?
Here’s the composite Q&A:
DEADLINE: I’m shocked at how bad this deal is. Can you give me insight into what happened?
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: You have it right in your post. The companies singled out the weakest of the Guilds — SAG/AFTRA — to negotiate with first – and for whatever reason, the actors Guilds went along with it. The actors’ health and pension funds were (and are) in dire shape, with significant possible unfunded legal and accounting liabilities for the companies. So the companies put a lot of money on the table to try and shore some of this up (and limit their own liability). The AMPTP then refused to make any movement on anything else of consequence – and the actors accepted the deal. We’ve all know that the actor guilds were in “cave to merge” mode, and that’s exactly what happened. The AMPTP is smart: they forced them to sign an early negotiation clause 18 months ago to close out their last contract and then jammed them.
We don’t want to be too critical here of the actor unions, they’re in very bad shape, SAG in particular. SAG has to merge or they will cease to exist – and soon. They’re certainly in grave danger of no longer being able to provide even the most basic health benefits for all but the most successful of their members. They’ve been raising eligibility and co-pay requirements at a shocking rate that makes it difficult for many of their members to even qualify. Thousands of actors who used to routinely qualify for health benefits that allowed them to pursue the craft can no longer provide security for their families. And both actors unions were very close to being unable to meet their pension obligations and entering the “red” zone. The zone system for evaluating pension plans was enacted during the Bush administration as part of the PPA (Pension Protection Act.) Entering the red zone would have been catastrophic for all actors – and would have allowed the companies to enact draconian measures that could have significantly reduced pensions for actors long retired and dependent on these earned benefits. All that said, they made a crappy deal on everything other than pensions and health and left the other two creative guilds hanging out to dry.
Then came the DGA. Coming in early as they have so often done (jumping in front of our earlier contract date again). They also have problems in their health plan. They took an equivalent amount to the money SAG/AFTRA had gotten, and put it in their health plan. Made some very minor steps in basic cable that we think are counterproductive for writers (increases on very high budget minimums – that only one or two shows will hit, if ever). And called it a day.
Then, and only then, was the AMPTP prepared to have even preliminary conversations with us. Candidly, we were concerned (the leadership and staff) that they were planning to push us into a “take it or leave it” pattern offer right up against our contract expiration date. We felt we could maneuver them into giving us a bit more than the pattern if we could force them into an earlier deadline. We were worried they were going to jam us with rollbacks at the last minute, and if they did, we’d have no time to go back to our members and properly organize to get enough of head of steam going to push the rollbacks off the table.
This was all predicated on what you intimated in your post – our members were not in the mood for a strike unless the companies put significant rollbacks on the table. How did we know this? We asked them. Extensive polling, set visits to TV writer’s rooms and we held membership meetings. The response was overwhelming – “we’re only just beginning to recover financially from the strike and the massive recession” “please, please, please, don’t strike…” So we wanted to go in and see if the companies would be foolish enough to put large rollbacks on the table that we could use to galvanize the membership. They didn’t. Lots of petty crap that we had to get rid of, but nothing to convince the membership to take another strike vote only 3 years after the last.
On top of all of this, our pension fund was (is) in trouble. The stock market hit of 2007-2008 shaved hundreds of millions of dollars off our plan. While not in the same shape as the actors’ funds or the DGA health plan, we were in danger of moving from the good “green” status into the “yellow” danger status – and then into “red” status sometime in 2014 to 2015. The PPA danger to future and present retirees was and is real. The AMPTP knew this because half of the trustees are management trustees and have the same actuarial info we do. We knew we needed the money (1.5% increases in contributions) that the other guilds had gotten to shore up our pension fund, but wanted to try and get something else to go with it. The companies are a little frightened of us – and we tried to jam them to get the pension money we needed and some more in basic and pay. We got a little bit, but not much. And that’s why you didn’t read any self-congratulatory crap in our letter to the membership like you saw from the other Guilds. We did what we could under difficult circumstances. We’re disappointed we couldn’t do more. Relieved we’ve shored up the pension plan and protected our retirees and future retirees.
DEADLINE: What was your biggest obstacle to getting a better deal than this one?
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: We had no credible strike threat, not even vaguely; and we had no effective alliance with either SAG/AFTRA or the DGA. Hence: no leverage. Regardless of contract expiration dates, the AMPTP negotiates first where it can get the best deal, then tries to impose the pattern on everyone else. In the absence of leverage, there’s little that can be done once the first deal is set.
DEADLINE: Is there any good news from what you did get?
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: This deal will cost out to approximately $60M across the life of the contract, as opposed to $40M or thereabouts in the previous negotiations. So in dollar figures it’s more than might be expected. Half again as much. (In the previous contract we were focused less on immediate gains than on the crucial jurisdiction in New Media, which we feel will be an increasingly large revenue stream.) The 2% across-the-board increase in minimums means something in TV especially, where it amounts to a cost-of-living increase. The AMPTP fought, and fought hard, for a carve-out of daytime TV writers, to whom they wanted to give no increase at all. The amounts involved, in dollar figures, were quite small: in the thousands. But the AMPTP kept grinding. The WGA made it clear that the 2% had to apply to daytime, too. It was, weirdly, among the hardest-fought issues, large and small, of the negotiation final-weekend endgame. We won. But only by dint of true (and admirable) persistence.
We were fortunate in that one of the AMPTP’s bugbears, first-class air travel, affects writers less than it does actors or directors. So that was less of a “give” for us (even if inevitable, given the pattern).
The increase (and prospective future increases) to the pension fund are quite significant, and will keep us in the Green zone. Which is, in these times, a good place to be.
As the statement noted after the tentative contract was reached, the lack of progress in basic cable is deeply regrettable. But we had no way of getting it this time out.
DEADLINE: But why accept this lousy deal so quickly?
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: There was no point in staying longer. Even with months of negotiations, nothing of substance gets done until the last 48 hours. We got their crap off the table on Friday, pushed them as far as we felt we could and got a lot of money out of them for pension on the last day (that’s a 25 to 33% increase in pension contributions) and the 20% pay TV bump. It’s one of the largest monetary deals we’ve ever done (2007 was a jurisdictional dispute — hasn’t paid yet, but it will).
DEADLINE: Wasn’t the whole point of the “next” negotiation to up New Media payments?
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: Yep. We spent the last 18 months trying to get SAG and the DGA to come along with us and make these a priority. While the monies generated so far in these areas are small, we believe it’s the future. The other guilds didn’t make any progress on improving these. We came last, without a legitimate strike threat, we were going nowhere. That said, the 1.2% formula on internet rentals we got in 2001 (as compared to the .66% we got on EST downloads in 2008) so far seems to be the way the business is moving with Netflicks, Amazon and iTunes. Too early to tell, but we’re sitting pretty – it’s the formula we always wanted on DVDs that the DGA gave away in 1985. Ad supported streaming hasn’t really taken off as a profit center for the companies (note moving Hulu behind a pay wall that kicks in our 1.2% rate). We still believe the streaming windows should be shorter. Same with the residual rates for streaming.
DEADLINE: And aren’t the Big Media companies doing well right now financially — at least that’s what they’re telling Wall Street? Shouldn’t they share the wealth with the people who are creating their content?
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: No shit. Particularly in TV, the ad market is back, pay TV is printing money and basic has turned into a major revenue generator. Film business is struggling, but we don’t think that’s because they have to pay writers a couple of extra bucks on minimums. Screen is where we’re having the most trouble making any kind of progress to help screenwriters – they’re getting killed. Double digit decreases in the number of films being made. Third fewer scripts going into development, that’s a lot fewer paychecks for screenwriters. Add into that the one-step deals that have become industry standard for most deals (and the pressure to do free rewrites that goes with the one-step deals) and screenwriters are getting hammered. We tried to limit one-step deals, sweepstakes pitching and other abusive practices, but didn’t get much of anywhere in this deal.
DEADLINE: And what happened to those promises made at the end of the last contract negotiations? Didn’t all three guilds pledge they’d do things different this time and join together and fight, fight, fight for substantially more this contract go-round and their rightful share of the money pie if only members elected more “moderate” leadership than the militants of yore?
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: It takes partners to dance. We tried, believe me, we tried. Lunches, meetings, shared information. Frankly, SAG has had so many internal political problems that they’re in survival mode. They have to merge to survive and they know it. They wanted to shore up their health and pension plans as much as they could and then get to the business at hand – merging and trying to figure out how to make the merged institution back into a functioning union that can use it’s collective power to get back to serving their members. SAG/AFTRA’s situation is frustrating for all of us. If they could ever return to being a functioning union, they’d be by far the most powerful of the three creative unions. Ken Howard seems to be doing an excellent job trying to pull them together. We all hope they can get it together, we need bargaining partners to make progress on basic cable and many other issues.
As you well know, there’s a lot of history between the DGA and WGA (much of it not very good – see 2007). We’ve made some progress, we’re back to communicating on a regular basis, trying to repair some relationships. We talked about the importance of both going for significant improvements in the new media formulas and basic cable. But when they came out with a deal, there weren’t any significant improvements in either area. We can only assume they did what they thought was best for their membership… We’ll keep trying.
Doubt any of this will be satisfying – we know we’re not satisfied by the outcome. But these are our impressions of what happened. With our pension plan stabilized we hope the Guild will turn it’s full attentions to organizing our members and the industry to make substantial changes in the basic cable formulas and fight for jurisdiction of the emerging digital technologies in the future.
DEADLINE: Wasn’t WGA President John Wells as a big-time network, cable, and now pay channel producer and a patsy for Warner Bros boss and anti-guild hardliner Barry Meyer incredibly conflicted on issues involving writers? Wasn’t he looking after his own interests first wih this contract and kept his Southland budget down at TNT while also getting a hefty 20% bump for his Shameless writers at Showtime.
WGA NEGOTIATIONS INSIDERS: We don’t know that he’s incredibly conflicted on issues involving writers. We know that it might appear to some that he is, but the monies that go to writers for increases in minimums and residuals are very small (one of the things that’s so fucking irritating about negotiating these contracts) – a 1% difference in minimums represents very little to the companies, and people like him who are sometimes profit participants, but can make a big difference to a writer, actor, director, Teamster or crew member. Writer-producers who are also profit participants (pretty much every EP and or creator in television) aren’t worried about the extra 150 bucks that a 1% minimum increase causes in 1/2 hour or 300 bucks in an hour – studio air conditioning fees for the stages can cost that an hour. Studio overhead charges and facility use charges, offices we’re forced to use in a rundown trailer that faces a dumpster that cost three times the office rent of a similar space in Beverly Hills or Century City – that’s what impacts profit participants. Not minimum increases and health and pension contributions.
We fight for the writers we work with to get them paid more on the shows we’re working on and we care for the community of writers because they’re us. To follow your logic, every EP and writer who creates a show should be opposed to any increase in costs for any show they’re associated with. But showrunners were the backbone of the 2007 strike. The strike couldn’t have succeeded without them. Millions of dollars were lost by showrunners – and it was done to insure the future of all writers. The picket lines were manned by Matt Weiner and Steve Levitan, Carlton Cuse and Neal Baer – among hundreds of others.
On a personal note, Wells’ mother was a teachers union leader, he’s belonged to five unions – starting with the carpenters union (he built houses as kid), the IA (the IA work he got is the only way he was able to pay his way through college), Actors Equity, the WGA and the DGA. The WGA supported him at the beginning of his career, protecting his rights and benefits when he had no clout to do so on my own – and it’ll protect him as his career inevitably declines and into his retirement. He’s 54 and got lucky with ER so his career is still thriving. But dozens of his friends, the writers he came up with in the business, are already struggling to make it to retirement with their pensions and health benefits intact. That’s what the WGA means to him. This community of writers is his family, these are his friends.