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Writers got what they wanted: a partnership

Now that the three-month-old writers’ strike is over, both sides are looking ahead – and claiming victory. Writers won a partnership and the studios shed perceived dead weight.
Aptopix Hollywood Labor
Patrick Varrone, president of Writers Guild of America West, announces the the strike against the Hollywood studios is over.Kevork Djansezian / AP

Now that the three-month-old writers’ strike is officially over, both sides are looking ahead — and claiming victory.

The writers claim victory because they will receive more money for content streamed over the Internet and on mobile devices. The studios claim victory because they were able to shed some perceived dead weight.

But the truth is similar to the legendary Akira Kurosawa film, “Rashomon,” a title that is often mentioned whenever a situation offers more than one interpretation.

On Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, an estimated 3,000 members of the Writers Guild of America met to hear details of a proposed settlement to the three-month-old strike that has crippled Hollywood. But the atmosphere for a short period was akin to a rock concert, as most of the attendees greeted the 20-member WGA negotiating committee and a handful of board members with a standing ovation.

The WGA members present at Saturday’s meeting did not applaud every point of the proposed agreement with the studios, of course. But their initial outburst was probably more of general relief that a deal that they could live with, that was worth enduring the economic pain of the walkout and that is considered to be slightly better than what the Directors Guild of America recently agreed to was on the table.

The studios budged a little on some of the major points and came away having endured little damage and even polishing their images a bit. Although the negotiating committee for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers had often been criticized for heavy-handed tactics and bullying attitudes, the studios sent in Fox President Peter Chernin and Disney CEO Robert Iger over the past three weeks to craft an agreement that everyone could live with.

But in some quarters the studios are being viewed as the real winners because, like a good screenwriter, they scripted how this whole affair would go.

While the writers struggled without paychecks, the studios had enough stockpiled films and programming to keep themselves afloat for weeks. In addition, they waited until well after the 60-day window for force majeure to kick in for the writers. By doing that, the studios were able to terminate lucrative production deals with many writer-producers and wipe their books of what they perceived to be dead weight.

Then, right about late January to early February — while there was still time to crank out episodes of TV series for the fall and also save the Oscar telecast, one of Hollywood’s most important promotional events — Chernin and Iger rode in like cavalry and made it seem as though their side had suddenly gotten in touch with their magnanimous inner selves.

Said one WGA member: “They played us really well.”

That might be so, but the writers came away with enough to feel good about themselves. The deal itself isn’t exactly what the union wanted. But under the circumstances, it was enough to declare victory because it was the best the WGA probably was ever going to get.

The major point of contention had been the amount of money writers would receive from movies and television shows streamed over the Internet and on cell phones and other such devices. The studios bent and the writers rejoiced, because the agreement establishes a formula for payouts from new media. The writers will get a flat fee the first two years for shows streamed on the Internet, and then two percent of “distributor’s gross,” the advertising sales received by networks, for the third year.

But the tradeoff on that point is that the WGA agreed to a 17/24 window — 17 days for continuing shows, 24 days for new shows. That means during those 17- and 24-day periods when a film or show is first put on sale on the Internet, it will be considered a promotional window for the studios and therefore writers will get no residuals until after those periods are over.

That was considered a disappointment by many among the WGA’s roughly 10,5000 members because a popular TV show or film usually sees a burst in sales when it is initially put on the market, and sales slowly dwindle from there.

Still, the WGA feels it wanted a piece of the future in the area of new media, and it got it.

The question now is whether subsequent deals with the studios will pick up from that point and get larger. For instance, the guild feels it did not get enough of a cut in DVD sales in its last contract (in this current settlement, the union backed off on its request for increased DVD payouts to its members).

But what it agreed to three years ago was consistent with a formula agreed upon in home video payouts that dates back to labor agreements made in the late 1980s and that serve as a template for home video payouts today. That isn’t ideal for the WGA. And it suggests that while the studios were willing to give in and offer a percentage of new media this time, there is no guarantee that figure will rise in future deals with the guild.

The guild also gained a victory in the area of “separated rights.” For example, if a film is streamed on the Internet and is a success, and a studio decides to spin it off into a TV series, it will have to make a separate payout to the writer or writers for that second project.

But the guild had to take something off the table that it promised its members would be in the next contract: to include animation and reality show writers in the contract. The studios held firm on that.

Still, it was that 2 percent share of revenue in the third year of the deal that justified the strike. The WGA feels it wanted to be treated as a partner by studios rather than hired hands. By getting a percentage, it got its wish.

That would explain the standing ovation and the claim of victory.