Entertainment Industry

Category: Writers Guild of America

Hollywood writers and studios reach new three-year contract

After less than three weeks of talks, the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood's major studios have a reached an agreement on a new three-year contract.

The tentative agreement includes a 20% increase in pay TV residuals, a 2% increase in annual wage rates and an increase in employer pension contributions to 7.5% from 6%, according a letter the WGA sent to its 12,000 members Sunday night. The guild's current contract expires May 1.

The swift agreement was widely anticipated and stood in sharp contrast to the bitter standoff that occurred in late 2007, when writers staged a 100-day strike after contract talks with the studios broke down.

While the previous contract negotiations centered largely on how writers should be paid in new media, the most recent talks focused more on traditional bread-and-butter union issues, such as raising minimum-wage rates and strengthening the union's pension plan, which was hard hit by investment losses from the recession.

The agreement, reached Sunday afternoon, was modeled on similar contracts recently negotiated by the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Directors Guild of America.

The guild's negotiating committee said it would meet Monday to vote on sending the agreement to the WGA's board of directors. The proposed contract must be ratified by the guild's membership before it takes effect.

— Richard Verrier

Writers Guild of America and studios to begin contract talks

Hollywood's film and TV writers will begin negotiations with the major studios on a new film and TV contract this week.

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers announced in a joint statement that talks on a new three-year contract would begin Thursday. The guild's current contract expires May 1.

The WGA's previous negotiations culminated in a 100-day strike that ended in early 2008, primarily over how writers are paid for work distributed across new media. This time around, the guild aims to pursue more traditional union priorities, such as increases in wages, improved working conditions and higher contributions to the union's health and pension fund.

Unions representing Hollywood's actors and directors recently secured new contracts with the studios that provided modest pay bumps and increases in their health and pension plans.

WGA negotiators also want to curb cost-cutting practices, such as "sweepstakes pitching," when multiple writers are pitted against one another for jobs, and "one-step" deals, in which writers are paid for the first draft of a script and are no longer offered a fee for subsequent drafts, as they had been in the past.

The guild's 14-member negotiating committee will be chaired by John Bowman, the comedy writer who led the previous negotiating committee, and veteran screenwriter Billy Ray. WGA West Executive Director David Young and guild president John Wells will also lead the negotiating team. 

-- Richard Verrier

Writers Guild inks bargaining goals for upcoming contract talks

The union representing Hollywood's writers is beginning to script its upcoming contract negotiations with the major studios.

The Writers Guild of America on Wednesday sent to more than 10,000 members its so-called "pattern of demands," the bargaining goals that members will vote on by Jan. 24. The demands set the framework for film and TV contract negotiations with the studios, expected to begin early next year. The guild's current contract expires May 1.

The Writers Guild's previous negotiations culminated in a 100-day strike, primarily over how writers are paid for work distributed across new media. This time around the guild aims to pursue more traditional union priorities, such as increases in wages, improved working conditions and higher contributions to the union's health and pension fund.

Hollywood's actors and directors unions recently secured new agreements with the studios that provided significant increases in their health and pension plans.

Guild negotiators also want to curb cost-cutting practices, such as "sweepstakes pitching," when multiple writers are pitted against one another for jobs, and "one-step" deals, in which writers are paid for the first draft of a script and are no longer offered a fee for subsequent drafts, as in the past.

"Your sacrifices during the last negotiation and the WGA's 100-day strike led to historic advances in the areas of new media residuals and jurisdiction over writing for new media,'' the union's leaders said in a letter to members. "While there is no such single galvanizing issue in the current negotiation cycle, this does not mean there is a lack of important objectives to be achieved in the upcoming negotiations."

The guild also named a 14-member negotiating committee that will be chaired by John Bowman, the comedy writer who led the previous negotiating committee, and veteran screenwriter Billy Ray.

-- Richard Verrier 


Writers on E! and other Comcast cable networks vote for guild representation

The labor dispute between the Writers Guild of America, West and Comcast Corp. escalated Wednesday when the guild announced that a majority of writers who work on the cable networks E!, Style and G4 voted to be represented by the union.

In an election monitored and certified by Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, the union said writers on shows including "The Soup" "The Dish" and "E! News" and "Chelsea Lately" voted 46-to-1 in favor of having the union represent them in contract negotiations. The guild is seeking union benefits on behalf of about 65 writers on 10 different shows on Comcast-owned cable TV networks.

The guild recently announced that 80% of the writers on the Comcast shows had signed authorization cards seeking to be represented by the guild. But Comcast rebuffed the demand, saying writers should have the opportunity to vote in a secret-ballot election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.

The guild viewed that demand as a delaying tactic intended to thwart its organizing efforts, and instead asked Garcetti, a supporter of the guild, to oversee a secret-ballot election.

"The results of this election send a clear message -- these writers are serious about organizing and want Comcast to sit down with the WGAW to negotiate a contract on their behalf,'' Garcetti said at a City Hall news conference, where he was surrounding by various guild officials.

"Comcast made a public statement saying it believes in the sanctity of a secret-ballot election, and that's exactly what we've participated in,'' said the "The Soup" writer Greg Fideler. "Comcast must now do its part and begin talks with the Writers Guild."

But Comcast Entertainment Group dismissed the validity of the vote, calling it a non-binding poll that has no legal standing.

"A binding election of eligible employees, overseen by the NLRB, is what is called for and is what is fair for our employees,'' the company said in a statement. "If the WGA is truly certain of the desires of our employees, as they assert they are, then they should call for an NLRB-sanctioned election so that voting can take place and the matter can be settled in the manner prescribed by the NLRB."

The dispute comes at a delicate time for Comcast, which is hoping to complete its $30-billion merger with NBC Universal early next year. The Writers Guild has opposed the merger of the media companies, saying it would stifle competition and hurt consumers by restricting open access to the Internet.

Union officials also have raised concerns that Comcast, which is not a signatory to Writers Guild contracts, would be hostile to organized labor in Hollywood.

"Their past history has been staunchly anti-union,'' said WGA, West President John Wells, who has testified against the merger in congressional hearings. "They're taking over a major employer in a highly union town. ... This does not bode well."

-- Richard Verrier

Photo credit: Chelsea Handler, left, hosts the E! late-night talk show "Chelsea Lately."



And that's the way it is: CBS News writers ratify new contract

Notwithstanding layoffs and cutbacks in the broadcast news business, CBS News writers are getting a slight bump in pay.

Members of the Writers Guild of America on Saturday overwhelmingly ratified a new three-year contract that provides 2% annual increase in pay to CBS News writers working in television and radio on local and national levels in New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles.

Guild members voted 83% in favor of the contract, which in addition to the pay raises, for the first time makes CBS News employees eligible to join the guild's pension fund and provides negotiated minimium pay levels for writer-producers.

CBS writers had been working without a contract since April, when the new three-year agreement takes effect retroactively.

"In these difficult economic times, and with the news business in such a period of serious change, we are pleased that our unions have successfully negotiated and voted approval of the new contract with CBS News," said Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, which jointly negotiated the contact with its West Coast counterpart.

Next up for the Writers Guild of America are talks with the major studios on a new film and TV contract, which expires in May. Hollywood's actors unions and the Directors Guild of America recently secured new labor agreements.

-- Richard Verrier

Halmi's RHI Entertainment files for Chapter 11

In a move that underscores the dramatically changing of tastes of television viewers and the overleveraged finances of some media companies, the once-vibrant Robert Halmi Inc. production company has filed a prepackaged Chapter 11 reorganization in New York Bankruptcy Court.

In its Friday afternoon filing, RHI Entertainment listed assets of $524.7 million and liabilities of $834 million. The company plans to keep operating.

RHI Entertainment specializes in made-for-TV movies and miniseries, a genre that has slipped in popularity as younger viewers have warmed more to reality and competition shows such as Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" and MTV's "Jersey Shore."

The filing had been expected. The company has spent the last few months securing creditors' approval for its prepackaged bankruptcy. Its largest creditors are JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

"Today's action is the next step in the process to reduce our debt and formulate a new capital structure that will better enable us to invest in our businesses and continue to provide one of a kind content to our customers," the company's chief executive, Robert Halmi Jr., said in a statement.

Major creditors have approved the company's plan for recapitalization that would reduce its debt by approximately 51%, or $309 million, while also allowing it to lower its interest costs. In its statement, New York-based RHI said it also had struck agreements that it said would eliminate, reduce or "favorably amend the payment terms associated with over $100 million in potential claims of a number of creditors, including various production partners and talent guilds." 

The Screen Actors Guild has a claim against RHI valued at more than $12.73 million. The company owes the Writers Guild of America nearly $3.8 million and the Directors Guild of America $3.42 million, according to the filing.

The company's rich history could itself be the stuff of a made-for-TV movie. Founded in 1979, the company spent decades pumping out programming, including the miniseries "Lonesome Dove," with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, and the TV movie "Gulliver's Travels," with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. In recent years, RHI claimed at least half the market for TV miniseries and movies, many produced for the Hallmark Channel.

RHI was a public company until 1994, when Hallmark Cards bought out the Halmi family. Twelve years later, in 2006, Robert Halmi Jr. and other investors bought it back from Hallmark, which left the production company burdened with debt of more than $600 million. Two years later, RHI mounted a public offering which raised $189 million -- not as much as the company had hoped. Then the recession hit and its primary buyer, Hallmark Channel, pulled back, triggering a cascade of financial misfortune. Its stock was delisted earlier this year.

-- Meg James   

Writers Guild sketches out goals for upcoming contract talks

Even before Hollywood's actors have completed their own contract negotiations with the studios, film and TV writers aren't wasting any time penning their own bargaining goals.

Writersguildofamericawest This week the Writers Guild of America, West, unveiled one in a series of contract bulletins that outlines some of the issues it intends to highlight during upcoming negotiations to replace the current contract, which expires in May.

The bulletin contained no real surprises: the guild says one of its main priorities is to increase contributions to the union's health and pension plans, citing rising costs and steep market declines that have reduced investment returns. That's also a front-burner issue for both the Screen Actors Guild , the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Directors Guild of America.

The Writers Guild also signaled that it wants to crack down on such industry practices as having screenwriters submit multiple pitches before they are hired for work. The union said it also will seek higher script fees and residuals for writers who work in basic cable television, arguing that their pay rates haven't kept pace with the growth of such shows as AMC's "Mad Men" and FX's "Damages."

— Richard Verrier

Writers Guild worries about news degradation under Comcast-NBC Universal

The quality of television news could deteriorate further under a Comcast-controlled NBC Universal, the  Writers Guild of America East warned Wednesday in letters to key Washington officials overseeing the government's review of the proposed merger.

"True investigative reporting has almost vanished completely from commercial on-air news or has often been reduced to sensationalized, trivial coverage of no lasting significance," Michael Winship, president of the guild, and Lowell Peterson, executive director, wrote.  "Instead of a town square where ideas flow freely, the news business becomes more like a shopping mall dominated by a small number of megastores. This thwarts the public's ability to engage in robust, well-informed discussion of the critical issues of our times."

The guild, which represents thousands of writers  in film, television, radio and digital media, sent the letters to Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski; Christine Varney, the assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division; and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

The consolidation of Comcast's entertainment assets with NBC Universal "would result in a single company producing content and acting as sole distributor of that content -- both on cable and online -- for tens of millions of Americans," Winship and Peterson wrote.

As a remedy, they recommended that Comcast be required to "contribute significant resources to the production of truly independent content."  Funding, they said, should be allocated through the Corp. for Public Broadcasting or "another entity to be established for this purpose." They suggested that Comcast set aside $10 million a year over a 10-year period -- or $100 million -- for funding. 

"It is imperative that this further consolidation of control be counterbalanced by a commitment to broaden the programming available to the public," Winship and Peterson wrote.

Comcast quickly responded, saying it was up to Congress and the "public broadcasting community" to devise funding strategies.

"Comcast has already pledged to make local news and other local programming available to consumers at more times and on more platforms than ever before and to facilitate and encourage the creation of new local programming and to add even more independent networks to our video systems," Sena Fitzmaurice, vice president of government communications for Comcast, said in a statement. "We’ve committed that the NBC owned and operated broadcast stations will produce an additional 1,000 hours per year of local news and information programming for distribution on traditional and new media."

Though the guild's suggestion was "a thoughtful proposal," Fitzmaurice's statement went on, "it ignores the fact that, taken as a whole, the range of public interest commitments already made by the combined companies promises to deliver more diverse programming and more independently produced programming than any entity has ever committed to before."

-- Meg James

Never pitched: "Mad Men" writer fails to campaign, and doesn't win seat on the Writers Guild board

Matt Weiner may be the brains behind one of the most critically acclaimed shows on television.

But that wasn't enough to guarantee a seat on the board of directors for the Writers Guild of America, West.

The writer and executive producer of AMC's award-winning show "Mad Men" did not muster enough votes to claim one of eight seats up for grabs on the guild's board, which has 17 members.Weiner

The loss was perhaps the most surprising outcome from the guild elections. Weiner was among the highest-profile of 17 candidates to run for the board, which saw the re-election of incumbents Katherine Fugate, Aaron Mendelsohn, David Goodman, Mark Gunn and Kathy Kiernan. Newly elected members are Robin Schiff, David Shore and Christopher Keyser.

Weiner was not supported by current guild President John Wells, but he did get the endorsement of former guild President Patric Verrone (most of the candidates elected were supported by both men).

Weiner also did not campaign for the position, nor did he put a statement in the booklet that guild members receive when they cast their ballots. An assistant for Weiner said he was not available for comment.


Separately, the Writers Guild of America, East elected six members to its council, including two new high-profile members: Andrew Bergman, a writer for "Blazing Saddles," and Terry George, whose credits include the movie "In the Name of the Father."


-- Richard Verrier


Photo of Matt Weiner by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images


Writers Guild wants rewrite on Comcast/NBC Universal merger

Hollywood's scribes want to scratch a line through the proposed Comcast/NBC Universal merger -- at least the way it's currently written.

The Writers Guild of America, West on Thursday warned the FCC that the merger would not serve the public interest unless it imposed requirements to "preserve fair competition and promote diversity of content sources."

"The control of our news, information and entertainment sources in increasingly fewer hands is a profoundly negative development not just for writers but for consumers and all citizens in a democracy,'' the guild said in its most recent filing with the FCC.

Among the guild's recommendations: requiring the merged company's broadcast and cable networks to devote at least 25% of their prime-time schedule to programming from independent producers and preventing Comcast from bumping unaffiliated cable networks out of its basic cable tier.

 "The FCC should require that this merger create more competition, not less; more diversity not less," the guild said.

-- Richard Verrier


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