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Striking Writers Dig In

12 Nov, 2007 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Writers went to the picket lines last week after they didnÆt get the residual deal they wanted from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television producers.

Striking writers last week appeared united in their resolve to extract a larger piece of the DVD and digital-delivery pie from major studios and media corporations.

Jay Leno supplied donuts, and Eva Longoria handed out pizza. Meanwhile other TV stars, including Julia Louis-Dreyfus and comedienne Wanda Sykes, marched holding Writers Guild of America (WGA) placards at picket lines in New York and Los Angeles.

WGA leaders Nov. 5 authorized a membership vote for a strike after marathon negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed to resolve recurring DVD-compensation issues.

The strike is expected to shut down or delay production of prime-time television programming, late night talk shows, soap operas and related events indefinitely.

Writer Eric Wallace, one of the strike captains at picket lines in front of NBC/Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif., said that while he and other writers would love to go back to work as soon as possible, bargaining could take a while.

Wallace, who works on the Sci Fi Channel show “Eureka,” was among a group of 40 protestors that picketed NBC Universal's employee gates on Lankershim Boulevard Nov. 7.

“The [networks and studios] said [Nov. 4], as long as the DVD residuals were still on the table, they wouldn't talk to us,” Wallace said. “Forty-eight percent of writers [in the guild] are unemployed at any one time. How do you eat when you're not working? Residuals, buddy.”

AMPTP president Nick Counter said producers attempted to meet the WGA demands on Internet streaming and jurisdiction in new media but were rebuffed.

He seemed particularly miffed the WGA East began strikes in New York while negotiations were ongoing with the WGA West in Los Angeles.

“It is unfortunate they chose to take this irresponsible action,” Counter said in a statement.

The WGA responded that despite withdrawing its revamped DVD residual proposal, the AMPTP refused to discuss jurisdiction on new media and insisted that residual compensation for Web downloads be paid at the current DVD rate, which the WGA has long considered antiquated.

For more than 20 years, WGA members writing for VHS and DVD have received 1.5% of 20% of the producers' wholesale price for each unit sold.

Citing WGA figures and its own research, the Los Angeles Times reported that writers in 2006 earned 5 cents from the sale of a $19 DVD while the studios took $9; retailers $5; production and shipping $4.55; and other unions, 40 cents.

The guild would like to up that to 1.2% of 100% of wholesale, according to a WGA spokesperson.

“The rate the guild is looking for is currently in existence [for pay TV], but the producers don't want to apply it,” said spokesperson Gregg Mitchell.

Writers collectively earned $264 million in fees in 2006, which included $70.8 million in domestic cable and foreign TV; $63.3 million in network syndication; $56.6 million in videos and DVD; $38.9 million in pay-TV and $34.8 million in other programming. That's according to the WGA and the Los Angeles Times. Male and female TV writers earned slightly more than $94,000 in average salaries in 2005. Male film writers earned $90,000, while female film writers earned $50,000.

AMPTP president Counter said the WGA demands for increased DVD residuals continue to impede attempts to resolve other labor issues.

He said any new agreement regarding residuals for DVD and electronic delivery would have to be paid under the existing home video formula.

The AMPTP claims the home video residual formula is “falsely maligned” and does not constitute a discounted formula.

The organization claims that a writer earns an additional $64,800 in residual income based on a standard 1 million-unit sale of a movie DVD. It says incremental compensation increases to $324,000 on sales of 5 million units and $648,000 on sales of 10 million units.

“We cannot move further as long as that issue remains on the table,” Counter said. “In short, the DVD issue is a complete roadblock to any further progress.”

The WGA stated producers failed to negotiate further unless its members accepted “the hated DVD formula” and extended it to digital media, including downloads.

“Every issue that matters to writers, including Internet reuse, writing for new media, DVDs and jurisdiction, has been ignored,” the WGA said in a statement. “This is completely unacceptable.”

Wallace said writers believe that contrary to what producers claim, the Internet has become a huge revenue source for the studios and networks.

“I went to ABC.com to see an episode of ‘Grey's Anatomy' and saw six commercials,” Wallace said. “They're saying [Internet video] is just promotional, and it's not true. If we can't even get 8 cents [per DVD], that tells us they're just trying to bust the union. We'll be here as long as it takes.”

Chris Tribbey contributed to this story.

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