Producers, writers dig in

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

With the clock ticking down to a May 1 strike deadline and no contract negotiations scheduled with the Writers Guild of America, Hollywood producers are striking back.

In a war of words that has come to characterize this phase of the crucial labor dispute, producers are repeatedly painting in the most dire and apocalyptic terms both the effects of the guild’s proposal on the studios and producers and the effects of a prolonged strike on the Southern California economy.

A strike by the Writers Guild followed this summer by a Screen Actors Guild strike would be “devastating” to the local economy, DreamWorks SKG principal Jeffrey Katzenberg declared, citing a potential $2 billion-per-month overall negative economic impact.

In a producers’ alliance press briefing last week, Mr. Katzenberg repeatedly characterized the Writers Guild’s current contract proposal as one that would “put us out of business. You just don’t agree to something that would put you out of business, do you? I don’t think so.”

Other participants in the briefing by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), held at ABC’s offices in Burbank, were Walt Disney Co. President and Chief Operating Officer Robert Iger, Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Barry Meyer and Nicholas Counter, president of the AMPTP.

A strike just as the networks are poised to set their fall programming schedules would be a disaster for the writers themselves, Mr. Iger said, because network programmers would be forced to order the kinds of nonscripted series that are not covered by WGA contract.

Much of the press briefing, however, was given over to an arcane give-and-take with reporters trying to parse the numbers the AMPTP offered, both in the producers’ characterization of the elements and impact of the WGA’s proposal and in the AMPTP’s own offer (see chart).

Not surprisingly, a WGA spokesperson disagreed both with Mr. Katzenberg’s characterization of the writers’ proposal and with the AMPTP chart that purported to describe it.

“The industry has been `destroyed’ [by the WGA] to the extent that America Online is willing to pay billions [to get into it],” scoffed Cheryl Rhoden, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America West. “I guess we’ve been pretty effective.”

Ms. Rhoden took issue with the AMPTP’s math as well, saying that the percentage increases the producers attributed to the guild’s proposal (19.0 percent) and to their own proposal (9.7 percent) were wrong. In her version, the percentages are 8 percent to 9 percent for the WGA’s proposal and 4 percent to 5 percent for the producers’ proposal.

The math is in dispute on such other key proposals as the producers’ so-called “double burst” residuals proposition, which would give them the right to air certain programs a second time within 14 days of their original network airdate while paying 25 percent of the first network-run residual. This possible change in residual payments for new vs. old series was characterized by the producers as an experiment and potentially a new revenue stream for the writers because it might encourage network programmers to fill time slots with more scripted programming rather than resorting to unscripted reality shows. The writers themselves contended that “double burst” marks a 75 percent rollback for affected residuals.

Both sides, though, repeatedly stressed that they wanted to avoid a strike. “Let’s hope all this math becomes moot,” Ms. Rhoden said.

Said Mr. Katzenberg: “We want to make a deal. We are committed to making a deal.”