There’ll be fireworks but no fire, and there will be a deal in the end. That’s the word I’m hearing from both sides out of the WGA’s contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and TV Producers after two days of talks. No one is commenting publicly, but I’ve learned that besides presentations from both sides during the opening days, there’s palpable unease in the room at AMPTP HQ thanks to the multimillion-dollar rollback proposal producers sent the WGA more than a week before negotiations began. “There’s a feeling of, Why did you have to insult us?’” a WGA insider told me over the producers’ request for $60 million in rollbacks from the health and pension plans, residuals and targeted screenplay minimums. “Once again it makes us the least favored child of the guilds.” Some on the other side of the table don’t disagree with that assessment. “Those were ridiculous proposals meant to appease the people at the top, not anyone in the room,” a well-placed producer told me. “That’s why they were sent out more than a week and a half before talks started, to get the shot across the bow out of the way.”
Opening salvos and tensions aside, the way things stand right now, the expectation is that “pattern bargaining” will hold sway and everything that was in the deal the DGA made with the producers late last year will basically be in the agreement the WGA comes to after a few weeks. Not that it won’t be a possibly bumpy road to get there. “Things might blow up a bit, though right now it could come from either side,” said a studio exec close to the talks.
“This is a little bit of a kabuki theater right now,” one connected scribe cautioned. “All that rollback stuff the producers sent out, nobody believes that’s going to happen because those are strike issues and nobody’s going to strike this year,” he said, noting the crippling 100-day strike of 2007 and 2008. “You just smile at the guy on the other side of the table and say, ‘Sure, you need to tell Bob Iger that’s on the table, then that’s on the table, but it’s not going anywhere.’” Like in the DGA talks, AMPTP President Carol Lombardini is fronting the studios’ negotiations. Chip Johannessen and Billy Ray are heading the WGA’s 20-member-plus negotiating committee, with WGAW executive director David Young as chief negotiator. Like the placid 2011 talks and deal, this negotiation is expected to last around three weeks – well before the WGA’s current 3-year contract expires May 1.
The WGA negotiating committee has been meeting every Thursday for the past couple of months ahead of the talks that began Monday to determine what they think they can get and what they are determined to get. One major issue already under discussion in the early days is cable and broadcast parity. As it stands right, writers on hit cable shows like AMC’s The Walking Dead are making significantly less than writers on stalled or floundering network shows, and that’s something the guild wants dealt with.
A non-financial issue I’m told the WGA negotiators truly want addressed this time around is what they see as the continuing abuse of exclusively and options. Brought up but left unresolved in the last contract talks: The long spans on cable between when series are made, when they air and when they are picked up leave some midlevel writers trapped in a no-man’s land of option-enforced unemployment. Noted in their January 30 note to members, the WGA aims to make the case to release people more easily based on a model updated from the broadcast blueprint.
“One of the sticklers that gets overlooked is that the studios can be a pretty fractious group and they have to work hard to get all their people together,” says one high-placed WGA member, adding that the union and its moderate leadership is pretty cohesive this year. “You’ve got a lot of companies in that room who have different interests and that are normally competitors, and you’ve got a lot of new people in the producers’ room,” the studio exec says. “So somebody always has to come in to play the role of the grownup like Barry Meyer or Jeff Katzenberg used to.” Which begs the question – who will be the adult in the room this year once the fireworks start?