Writers win gains from studios

February 15, 2008

Lee Sustar reports on what Hollywood writers won as a result of standing their ground.

HOLLYWOOD WRITERS won gains following a 14-week strike against TV and film producers that ended with a new contract giving them a percentage of revenue for programs streamed on the Internet--a demand that industry bosses had vowed to resist.

By holding out against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the Writers Guild of America (WGA) was able to establish the right to 2 percent of "distributors' gross"--the fees paid to producers to allow a new TV show to be streamed on the Internet.

This provision won't kick in until the third year of the contract, when the AMPTP must share information on Web revenue with the union to determine the proper amount. However, the WGA did gain 2 percent of distributor's gross for older shows and films dating to 1977, effective immediately.

"The writers' strike has been the most successful strike in this country since the 1997 UPS strike," WGA West President Patric Verrone said on a Los Angeles radio show. "What it's done is to show that collective action on the part of workers can actually have a successful result. This is historic."

While the WGA did break new ground on new media revenue, the union came up short on other issues. Besides accepting the two-year delay in the new media revenue-sharing, the union dropped its demand for jurisdiction over writers in unscripted "reality" shows, as well as animation programs.

Another weakness in the deal is that studios don't have to pay fees, known as residuals, to writers for the first 24 days after a program is initially streamed. The studios claim this is necessary to avoid making multiple residual payments for a single show recorded on a DVR device, but it gives them a major loophole.

But these shortcomings must be seen in the light of the studios' original demands--a postponement of talks on new media for three years and rewriting of residual formulas that would have delayed payments for writers until the studios had recovered their costs.

The strike--plus solidarity from the Screen Actors Guild, which has its own contract talks soon--forced studio bosses to abandon their hard-line positions. The WGA hung on even after the Directors Guild of America undercut them by negotiating a separate--and inferior--contract early, while writers walked the picket line.

"Did [WGA] leaders gain enough yardage to justify effectively shutting down the TV business and damaging the film industry, putting tens of thousands of people out of work as recession clouds darken on the horizon?" wrote Los Angeles Times television critic Scott Collins.

"In a word, yes. Against formidable odds, some well-earned skepticism and endless carping from non-writing workers who viewed themselves as collateral damage in a provincial border war, guild officials stuck to their guns and negotiated a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that, while maybe not a historic win for labor, improves some terms from the recent Directors Guild of America contract, offers a blueprint for future payouts on digital media and even eases some of the pain of the oft-lamented 1988 contract, in which writers failed to achieve their objectives despite a five-month walkout."

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