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Strike by the Minute

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.

So it’s interesting that WGA prez Patric Verrone has begun calling on the more moderate CEOs to break ranks with AMPTP, which he claimed is “allowing bottom-line hard-liners to rule the day.” I’ve heard top WGA’ers privately refer to this as the “Let’s Make a Deal” strategy. But it hasn’t been articulated in public until now. “If any of these companies want to come forward and bargain with us individually, we think we can make a deal,” Verrone told AP while conferring with picketing writers at NBC in Burbank.

For weeks, I’ve asked moguls why they don’t deal individually with the WGA and blow off the AMPTP. After all, rather than collude, these major studios and networks are supposed to compete with one another. The car companies have a lot in common, but they still bargain individually with the auto workers. So let’s look at Hollywood. Sony is primarily in the movie business. Why not get their films restarted? And NBC has been in the cellar ratings-wise. Why not leapfrog other networks?

But when I raise this, the CEOs’ answer is an audible shrug, stammering and a simple, “I just can’t.” They don’t want to upset protocol and break ranks.

There is definitely a hardliner-moderate schism inside the AMPTP, one I wrote about well before the WGA strike even started. Now the differences are this: The hardliner CEOs fully expect that, with enough time on the picket line and little progress at the bargaining table, the WGA will splinter along the haves and have-nots, with big names deciding to go fi-core and guild negotiators losing their clout. Those moderate moguls that really do want to see the strike end sooner rather than later believe the “human dynamic” within the negotiating room isn’t working and has to change. These moderates believe that, instead of AMPTP’s over-the-hill prez Nick Counter, one of their own should be bargaining — most likely News Corp No. 2 Peter Chernin.

So will this happen? Not yet. Nick is still nominally in charge. Once again, the moguls don’t want to upset protocol and break ranks. I say, phooey.

Obviously it may be too much to ask that the resumed talks, which started under friendlier circumstances last week, take place this week in a less acrimonious atmosphere. Cuz these guys can’t get along for 5 minutes. First there was the pre-strike bickering over the chairs. Then the site of the negotiations. Late last week, the AMPTP and WGA found a whole new set of ridiculous issues to argue over that have nothing to do with the substance of the contract negotiations or even the strike.

Starting last Thursday and continuing over the weekend, they argued incessantly over whether the news blackout was violated. And they argued just as ferociously over who first suggested the WGA have until Tuesday to make a counteroffer. I refused to report the ins and outs of this because it’s irrelevent and it makes my head hurt. Such petty squabbling has to stop. This minute. Shut up.

I look forward to both sides continuing to haggle all they want about flat rates and everything else having to do with streaming, content made for New Media, programming delivered over digital broadcast channels, and eventually even electronic sell-through (ESTs). That stuff just makes my eyes glaze over.