New script for an old writers' gripe

Friday's agreement saved studios billions. It may also change Hollywood's culture.

By averting a labor strike that many feared could shut down production of film and television for months, Hollywood writers and production studios may have saved billions in lost revenue at a fragile turning point for the state and city economy.

Agreeing late Friday to a three-year contract, with $41 million in raises and a host of other concessions to writers, negotiators also narrowly beat the deadline for broadcast networks to commit to their fall prime-time schedules - thus ensuring almost no interruption in production schedules for TV serials and studio films alike.

They also paved the way for similar agreements in crucial negotiations with screen actors, whose contracts expire in coming weeks. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents more than 350 studios and production companies, is scheduled to begin negotiating new contracts May 15 with the Screen Actors Guild.

"This is the best economic package the writers have achieved since 1977," said Michael Mahern, co-chairman of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) negotiating committee. After nine weeks of intense talks, the guild says it won nearly all the creative-rights considerations it was seeking, with the exception of a reduction in the director's credit denoted by the words, "a film by...." The agreement must now be approved by 11,000 members of the guild.

"They've taken some significant steps toward more respect for the writers whose works make this industry run," says Doug Cox, a veteran actor and guild writer. "In the theater, the writer's words are practically sacrosanct and, in television and film, it has been just the opposite."

A higher profile for writers

Under the pact, which could be formalized within two weeks, the minimum payment for television and film scripts will increase 3.5 percent a year over the life of the contract. That figure is considered a compromise, about half of what the WGA initially sought. The agreement also includes residual raises - additional payments for subsequent uses of already-paid-for material - for cable, pay-TV, and foreign distribution. It also sets a formula for the growing category of video-on-demand delivery of scripted entertainment.

Examples of concessions Mr. Mahern says will change the culture of filmmaking are provisions that allow writers to be present at cast readings and on the set; to meet with directors before other writers are hired to doctor a script; and to be included in premieres and publicity efforts.

"There have been parties from Hollywood to Cannes in which films that won best picture did not allow the original writers through the door," says Mr. Cox.

Splintering entertainment field

Producers say the negotiations were especially challenging because of the splintering of the entertainment field. The growing number of ways to deliver products to consumers has created more and more sticking points to be worked out.

"This is one of the most difficult negotiations we've had," says Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Negotiations began Jan. 22, were interrupted from March 1 to April 17, and continued under a news blackout until announcements were made Friday after three days of marathon sessions.

Here are some of the key provisions:

* Writers received no increase in the formula for residuals paid when network programs are later sold to cable, but they receive more money for the original shows (3.5 percent increase per year of contract).

* Fox Network, which until now has paid writers one-third less than NBC, CBS, and ABC - on the theory it is still a developing network - will at the end of three years pay writers the same as the other networks.

* In sales of films and television material to foreign markets, writers will earn a 1.2 percent bonus when a one-hour show sells for more than $700,000 or a half-hour program sells for more than $350,000. Currently, they receive only a one-time payment.

* Studios will pay writers $5,000 per film for the right to publish screenplays on DVDs. But writers did not get an increase in health and pension plans.

Despite the celebrations that have ensued here since the agreement, some observers say rank-and-file members may not approve the pact when they peruse the fine print.

Susie Duff, a Screen Actors Guild member close to the recent negotiations, is happy that negotiators averted a strike but says the issue of a directors' credit is still one that grates on writers. "No matter what you've created, how well you've written, you are still likely to be erased when the credits roll and declare, 'An Oliver Stone Production,' " she says. "I'm adopting a wait-and-see attitude."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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