2ND UPDATE/New Info Throughout: Sources are telling me that today’s negotiating session between the writers and producers can be summed up in two words: “Not pretty.”
Just as I’ve told you for days and days and days what would happen, the AMPTP did indeed show up at the bargaining table with a newly packaged “comprehensive proposal” (Here’s the .pdf from the producers’ website for your perusal.) The WGA’s immediate reaction was to do the same thing AMPTP has done when one side presents a proposal: they take a break to caucus, then go to lunch, then come back and tell the producers, “You guys can go home now and come back at 11 am” at which time there’ll be a counter-proposal with a little luck. Ergo the glacial pace of these strike talks. Because there’s almost no face-to-face negotiating actually happening yet.
That is, if you don’t count the churlishness of the chairs (see below).
Later today, WGA negotiating committee honcho John Bowman issued this less-than-encouraging statement: “Our employers are growing and dominate the global entertainment industry. Yet their opening offer would have rolled back our compensation by 50%. Now they decrease the rollbacks to 45% and proclaim that they are truly bargaining. Minor adjustments to major rollbacks do not constitute forward motion. To make a deal, the AMPTP must engage with us on the issues that matter in this negotiation. With that in mind, we will respond to their proposal tomorrow.”
Back to what’s new on the table. I liken AMPTP’s proposal to ordering a family dinner combination at a Chinese restaurant. The producers’ menu for the writers today consisted of several increases regarding health and pension contributions from Column A; and no hikes to the DVD residual formula in general, or for residual payments run on the weblets CW or MyNetwork TV, or for pay television channels from Column B. As for Column C, since the WGA has already rejected the producers’ plan to underwrite a 3-year study on the money potential of New Media platforms, one new solution is to base New Media payment on what individual writers can negotiate with the studios and networks for it — presumably through their agents — all without any interference from the WGA.
If that’s the good news, it’s only because at least now there’s a “proposal laying the groundwork and providing a framework for an agreement,” according to AMPTP President Nick Counter who issued an end-of-day statement here. “The Comprehensive Proposal establishes the boundaries for a possible agreement, but it is flexible enough to allow both parties to come up with solutions as to the remaining issues.”
The bad news is that the writers I spoke to considered the whole plan “lackluster” with opinions ranging from seeing it as a militant “zero” to a more conciliatory “micro” movement on the key issues of say, the pension fund. But most want progress on DVD, animation, separated rights and new media. Sighed a WGA insider: “While it is good to see some movement, the elephants still stand in the middle of the room. Without a real shift in the next six days, a strike appears inevitable.”
Another writer described the state of the negotiations after today’s session like this: “If Counter wanted to totally play hard ass and provoke a strike, he could. He’s not, yet. Things like this start on the small issues. If we were talking about a month left till contract expiration, I’d be an optimist. It’s not that that writers and producers are miles apart, it’s that the clock is ticking while movement, though it exists, is glacial.
“Kind of like a middle school dance, girls on one side, boys on the other. They will decide to dance at some point, but will it be curfew first?”
Talk about childishness: Today’s session started off stupidly with a heated argument over chairs — yeah, that’s right, chairs. It’s all so shamelessly reminiscent of the impasse between the White House and Hanoi at the Paris Peace Talks back in 1968 when the two sides argued for a month over the size and shape of the table they would sit at once formal negotiations began. Today, when AMPTP’s Nick Counter showed up at the WGA’s bargaining venue trailing twice as many people as writers’ negotiator David Young had planned, the guild didn’t have enough seating. Young complained that Counter had given him a specific head count, and Counter shot back that he’d warned well in advance that he was going to bring his whole committee with him and called Young a liar (even though another witness vouched for Young’s recounting of events…) “The chair thing was totally middle school. David Young totally stood up to him,” one insider told me.
But Young wouldn’t let the producers’ side sit down, or bring chairs in from other rooms, or even go downstairs to a bigger conference room that had seating for everyone. For awhile there was an impasse, and then a Paramount labor exec stepped into the fray and started yelling at guild members, “What are you trying to prove here?” Finally, several negotiating committee members, the best known of whom was Desperate Housewives hyphenate Marc Cherry, went out and fetched chairs for the extra AMPTP’ers. “It was getting THAT uncomfortable that Marc Cherry got off his ass and went chair hunting. Says a lot,” one WGA wag opined.
“Not a great start,” another writers’ source commented to me. And embarrassing to boot. A producers’ insider told me tonight, “I can’t believe you know all about the chairs.”
The squabbling continued with Counter’s vitriolic rant regarding the WGA’s conduct during the process. “He seems frustrated by this guild leadership that’s not caving at the sight of him,” an WGA insider told me. “Counter is being a little bitch.” Funny enough, when I ran this remark by the producers’ side, an insider agreed. “He is a bitch.”
Also unhelpful is the bitchslapping taking place over all sorts of fringe contract issues, such as the producers asking for the right not to fly writers First Class which the WGA considers a rollback. (“Big whoop. The writers who are being flown around by studios are ones who can afford to buy their own tickets anyway,” a WGA source told me.) Better was the producers agreeing to consult with the writers on product integration for a show, something that the WGA does consider a concession. Then, there’s this doozy: that AMPTP is willing to withdraw its proposal to eliminate character payments for new characters that are not covered under separated rights, if the WGA would withdraw its proposal to be compensated for ring tones. Yes, ring tones.
So these are the Hollywood sages who are supposed to solve this strike before Halloween? We’re all fucked. On the other hand, I need to inject a small bit of history to put everything in perspective: back in 1962, it was inside the venerable Yenching Palace on Connecticut Avenue in northwest Washington DC that the intermediaries for the White House and the Soviet Union worked out the final details of the agreement to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. (I never saw Thirteen Days: was that scene in the screenplay?)
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