By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
HAGGLING IS AS INTEGRAL TO HOLLYWOOD as verbal agreements are to greenlighting $200-million-budgeted blockbusters. The governing dynamics are ridiculously easy to understand: Give a little, get a little, but just don’t blow the deal, dickwads. Which is why it’s so inexplicable that the major criticism I’ve heard from both the producers and the writers about the negotiations pre-and post strike is that the other side won’t haggle. The AMPTP makes a proposal, and the WGA goes away and caucuses and comes back and simply says no. And vice versa. There’s no back-and-forthing like in all those movies depicting labor negotiations. But what does Hollywood really know from Norma Rae.
Until now. At first it wasn’t exactly helpful to the goal of ending the WGA strike when the producers attempted to lowball the writers with an insulting offer on New Media hilariously titled the “New Economic Partnership” and inflame a volatile situation where the studios and networks keep holding back the semi-decent deal they know, and the writers know, could move these negotiations closer to a speedy settlement.
Nor was it helpful when the WGA not surprisingly threw a temper tantrum within minutes of receiving the lousy offer.
But I received a call from an AMPTP insider suddenly realizing that perhaps his organization had not used the most productive of negotiating tactics this time around. He asked quietly, “Have you heard if the WGA is going to make a counteroffer on Tuesday? They understand that this is just a starting point for negotiations, right?”
Well, apparently, the WGA does. Hallelujah. The haggling has begun.
I was able to glean that both sides sounded very matter-of-fact about Tuesday’s resumed negotiations focusing on the writers’ counteroffer. The WGA negotiating team agreed to accept the approach of the networks and studios and use a flat rate “with modifications” (with numbers that will be much much higher) while trying to come to terms on streaming. That flat rate could wind up being good for both sides in the long term. As an AMPTP insider explained to me when I asked why they moved off a percentage, “The reason we went with a flat rate for streaming is because they’re always complaining about our funny accounting, so we thought rather than give them a percentage of a percentage of funny accounting, we’ll give them a flat rate.” The point here is that even the studios know their accounting is bogus, so why bother?
Now that the news blackout has been lifted, the AMPTP issued this public end-of-day statement on Tuesday: “We will spend the evening studying what the WGA had to say today, and we look forward to returning to the bargaining table tomorrow.” Earlier in the day, WGA Negotiating Committee Chair John F. Bowman, on behalf of the Writers Guild of America, issued a message to members about the contract negotiations and presented a report and analysis that was tantamount to: AMPTP proposal bad. WGA counteroffer good — or, as Bowman described it, “a serious, reasonable and affordable attempt to bridge the gap between us.”
On Tuesday, a small group culled from both sides talked about the WGA’s counteroffer. Noted a WGA source, “Questions were exchanged. There was some haggling. This will continue tomorrow.” Said another WGA insider, “Our negotiators have been played so often. But it’s not bad. They’re at least engaged.” And a third party familiar with the talks e-mailed me, “The tone of ‘haggle’ is it. I’m encouraged.”
Bowman argues that the latest WGA proposal would cost the Hollywood studios and networks $151 million over three years. But the AMPTP claims its proposal would give the WGA $130 million over three years.
STILL, IT’S A BREAKTHROUGH that the writers are trying to sound conciliatory. “We greet their public willingness to make such an offer with real interest. If the AMPTP is serious about this figure, the WGA is confident we are closer to a deal than anyone has suggested.”
So are the producers, who took out full-page ads in Tuesday’s trades trying to sound less scary. Rather than a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer, the AMPTP proposal “is designed to allow both sides to engage in the kind of substantive give-and-take negotiation that can lead to common ground. . . . This is not a zero-sum campaign where there is one winner and one loser. We need the writers, and the writers need us. And we need to work together if we are to navigate the rapids of this increasingly complex, high-tech economy.”
That sure sounds swell. But consider what a Hollywood mogul told me by way of summing up the negotiations so far, “We’re tough, and they’re stupid.” Meanwhile, a WGA board member was e-mailing guildists “The Playbook of the AMPTP,” which would have made Karl Rove proud. I ask, How is this helpful? I’m constantly reminding both sides that Hollywood is a collaborative business, and that the archetypical union movie screenplay Norma Rae was greenlit by a studio, after all.
There is not unanimity within the mogul camp on how to proceed with these resumed AMPTP-WGA talks. For one thing, not all their agendas are the same: There are the mostly movie studios, the mostly TV networks, and the studios that own networks, and the networks that own studios. But all are led by a handful of CEOs who are the power behind the AMPTP throne. In the old days of guild talks, the AMPTP was made up of hundreds of real producers. That’s the reason this negotiation is so dramatically different from the strike of 1988. Because honest-to-god independent producers went by the wayside when financial syndication rules were eased. Then came Big Media consolidation, so now there’s no Aaron Spelling or Carsey Werner in the mix at the AMPTP telling Big Media to play nice. Now the bullies are in charge of the playground.