As the escalating coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc in Hollywood, the WGA and AMPTP are frantically trying to figure out as we speak how to conduct upcoming contract talks next week – and if they should even happen at all for the foreseeable future.
Everything is in flux right now, but it looks like a consensus is emerging that the March 23 start of negotiations on a new film and TV contract will be pushed, at least for a couple of weeks, we hear.
Whether that sees discussions over a new deal paused for the time being or the May 1 expiring current contract itself extended as the essentially shuttered industry continues to deal with COVID-19 consequences is what guild and producer representatives are trying to figure out Thursday. As of this afternoon, there had been no official change in the announced plan for the two sides to meet Monday, but there had been flurry of activity. We have reached to the WGA and AMPTP for comment.
Also on the table this afternoon is a more far flung notion gaining a lot of traction in the AMPTP camp that the current overall three-year contract be extended with gains that the DGA achieved in their now completed deal with the producers, which still has to go to the full membership for approval.
However things shake down in this fluid situation and guild members await updates, it is clear that everyone at the top of the WGA West and WGA East and the Carol Lombardini-led AMPTP realizes it cannot be negotiations as usual. “Facing a potential new Great Depression, we all sink or swim together right now,” one scribe close to the guild brass declared as the mindset on both sides of the table.
To that end, the once almost certainty of a WGA strike hitting Hollywood this year has become virtually DOA, with writers already looking at thin pickings in harsh economic times, a crashing stock market and a pandemic. “The only thing extreme anyone who is thinking right is thinking right now is how to keep people getting paychecks, not picket lines,” another high-profile scribe remarked.
One possible scenario that is in play for the proposed talks is that all parties get together remotely on Monday via Zoom for a teleconference to kick things off according to the pre-set schedule.
Yet, several sources told us that even if that is the opening day move, the enthusiasm for such a tactic was pretty low among negotiating teams.
“You need to be in the room with each other,” a well-positioned exec close to the producers’ side proclaimed, citing what may work well for writers’ rooms right now won’t work so well for their reps and the Sherman Oaks-based AMPTP. “There’s a lot of history, good and bad, between the parties and tension over the WGA going to war over packaging,” the corner suiter added, noting the move by the guild to ask all members to axe their agents over the Big 4’s refusal to sign a new Code of Conduct banning the long established and lucrative practice of packaging.
While Zoom has become the tool of choice for any Hollywood types working from home to slow the spread of COVID-19, there are security concerns using the popular teleconferencing app for confidential negotiations.
Having wrapped everything up first earlier this month just before concerns over the novel coronavirus saw series and movies grind to a halt and cast, crew and staff sent home, the new Directors Guild agreement with the AMPTP had big and long desired gains in streaming residuals. As well, the Jon Avnet and Todd Holland co-chaired DGA team and chief negotiator and national executive director Russ Hollander stewarded deal saw contract grandfathering tossed and pension plan contribution increased.
While just weeks apart in time, the recent DGA negotiations and the pending WGA talks are light years apart in terms of the economic conditions for their members’ employers.
The studios, which before the COVID-19 outbreak had been racking up record profits, now stand to lose billions. Their stocks are plummeting, movie openings are being pushed back, film and TV production has been halted, Broadway and movie theaters and theme parks have been closed, and major sports and entertainment events have been canceled.
The Guilds’ demands stem from the amount of profits their members’ work has generated for the media companies. A lot of these profits are now being wiped out by the fallout from the pandemic. Additionally, the WGA’s biggest leverage in negotiations has been strike. That is not the case now as the industry already has been struck by COVID-19, with all production grinding to a halt.
The approach the WGA and AMPTP take in this very unique coronavirus environment will set the table for how negotiations for a new SAG-AFTRA deal go too. Expected to follow the more militant WGA’s lead, the current contract for actors’ union expires on June 30.