Writers Applaud Deal With Studios

By Paul Farhi and Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 10, 2008

NEW YORK, Feb. 9 -- Jubilant screenwriters declared victory Saturday in their 14-week-old strike, hailing the Writers Guild of America's tentative agreement with Hollywood's major studios that, if accepted, could return employees to work this week.

In meetings in New York and Los Angeles, rank-and-file writers expressed general support for the studios' offer as the guild's leadership urged acceptance of the deal.

Guild officials in Los Angeles suggested that the WGA's East Coast and West Coast boards may hold a 48-hour vote among the membership on whether to return to work. If that vote passes, the union could then hold a 10-day vote on the new contract.

Some television comedy shows could be back on the air within two weeks of a back-to-work order, while a limited number of sitcoms and dramas -- which went into reruns as the strike rolled on -- could be back on the air with fresh episodes within a month, industry officials said.

WGA members gathered at a Times Square hotel and filled the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles to discuss details of the proposed deal.

"It sounds really positive," said a beaming Seth Meyers, head writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live," at the New York meeting. "I think they negotiated a good deal. I think we were right about the things we struck for."

Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, attended the 2 1/2 -hour New York meeting and called the contract offer "a historic moment for labor in this country. To have the writers stand up and not give back a single thing, and in fact, to make [the studios] give things, is a real achievement."

In a message e-mailed to striking WGA's members, the guild's Eastern and Western presidents, Michael Winship and Patric M. Verrone, jointly said that the terms offered by the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers are acceptable.

"We believe that continuing to strike now will not bring sufficient gains to outweigh the potential risks and that the time has come to accept this contract and settle the strike," they wrote, adding that "while this agreement is neither perfect nor perhaps all that we deserve . . . our strike has been a success."

Winship said after the meeting that the proposed deal has a "strong" chance of being ratified by members.

The most immediate beneficiaries of a settlement could be the thousands of production workers -- grips, caterers, camera operators, makeup artists -- who were thrown out of work when the writers struck. Although movie production mostly continued during the strike, TV shows on both coasts quickly came to a halt when the strike began Nov. 5.

A settlement also will probably enable the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 24 to go on with its full complement of stars, red-carpet arrivals and amusing patter. The Screen Actors Guild, which has supported the writers strike, said its members would not cross the WGA's picket lines.

This threat may have facilitated a settlement. At meetings Friday of West Coast strike captains with union leaders, according to screenwriter Mike Galvin, guild negotiators warned, "Ten days from now, this offer is not going to be on the table." The negotiators indicated that the WGA had made headway at the bargaining table since informal talks began with producers on Feb. 1 because of the possibility of salvaging the Oscars and the rest of the TV season, Galvin added.

Writers received an outline of the proposed contract a few hours before the New York meeting. Many writers who left the New York meeting said they were still absorbing the details, which are complicated and technical. "We're writers, not lawyers," said Carmen Culver, a WGA member who has written for television.

On the key issue of compensation for work streamed over the Internet, both sides gave a little. The studios and their network allies originally asked the guild for time to study the issue and declined to offer any residuals for digital media when talks broke off in early December. The guild, in turn, held fast, arguing that writers had to share in the profits of what may become the preeminent way to view filmed entertainment.

Under the proposal's terms, the studios would have a "window" to display programs over the Internet or other digital media without having to pay writers residuals. The window for an established show would be 17 days; the window for a new show would be 24 days. In the deal's first two years, writers would get a maximum fee of $1,200 for streamed programs.

Those windows were the biggest point of contention in Los Angeles on Saturday night. "Everybody thinks this is going to set a bad precedent," Galvin said.

The writers also won an increase in the residual rate when viewers download TV shows.

These provisions are similar to those reached between the producers and the Directors Guild of America last month. On blogs and in interviews, some WGA members had criticized those terms.

In the third year of the contract, however, writers would get a percentage of the distributor's gross revenue -- an improvement on the directors' deal, which maintains the flat payment.

A spokesman for the producers declined to comment on the writers' meetings.

Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer and former associate counsel for the writers guild, told the Associated Press that the offer was "a mixed deal, but far better than the writers would have been able to get three months ago." He called the strike "a qualified success."

Writers leaving the New York meeting sounded upbeat. Acknowledging that "some people aren't as happy as others," Culver said she is proud of the guild. "We really stood up and said to these multinational companies that [their profits] all begin with the word," she said. "I think we brought the big boys to their knees."

At no point did the writers' resolve weaken, Culver said. "No one said, 'Who cares about the details? We're taking it.' No one said, 'Let's say yes and get it over with,' " she said.

Guild leaders had planned to hold a vote among the East Coast and West Coast boards on Sunday, and if the deal was approved, to suspend the strike while the membership voted to ratify a contract. That plan drew questions Friday from the West Coast strike captains, Galvin said, and he suggested the objections led WGA leaders to propose the membership vote on lifting the strike.

The boards are still scheduled to discuss the contract Sunday, and an announcement on voting could come out of that.

Another labor negotiation is also on the horizon: The Screen Actors Guild's contract with the producers expires in June. The actors have many of the same concerns as the writers, and it is unclear whether the studios will offer a similar deal to SAG.

De Moraes reported from Los Angeles.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company