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Inside the WGA-AMPTP Negotiating Room: Speeches, Strategies and Social Media That Averted a Strike

Variety logo Variety 5/2/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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The dam broke at about 10:30 p.m. on Monday night. With 90 minutes to go to the strike deadline, the WGA and major studios began to find their way to the compromises that had been elusive during the previous five days of contract negotiations.

By 12:15 a.m. Tuesday, after a break for caucusing, the sides returned to the big table at the Sherman Oaks headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to declare that the deal was done.

What tipped the scales? From the WGA’s perspective, it was the pressure of the ticking clock and the unquestionable demonstrations of unity among guild members to strike if the leadership didn’t feel like they were being offered a fair deal.

From the view of the AMPTP, the WGA’s strategy was one of brinksmanship. With the threat of a walkout hanging over the room, the WGA, led by chief negotiator David Young, used their leverage to successfully push the studios for incremental gains nearly to the last minute before settling. Young once again earned the admiration of many members for his steely resolve and confidence that the guild was on the right course, even if it meant a work stoppage, to secure justified gains for writers.

Sources close to the situation credited the AMPTP, led by president Carol Lombardini, with the tactical decision to not throw down the gauntlet of a last, best and final offer. The absence of such take-it-or-leave-it pressure allowed the sides to keep talking well into the night, a process that helped both camps move toward common ground. The desire to avoid the disruption and financial losses incurred a decade ago during the 100-day WGA strike from November 2007-February 2008 was also a motivating factor for both sides.

In the heat of the negotiations, sources on both sides of the table noted the leadership demonstrated by Christopher Keyser, who co-chaired the negotiating committee along with Billy Ray and Chip Johannessen. Keyser, a veteran showrunner who served as president of the WGA West from 2011-2015, is said to have made an eloquent final pitch for why the guild was pushing so hard for a codified family leave plan in the master WGA contract. He cited the hardship that job insecurity has on young writers in particular when starting a family. In the end, a source said the family leave agreement does not give TV writers paid time off but does guarantee for the first time that they will be able to return to a job after up to eight unpaid weeks off, as long as the series remains in production.

Sources close to the situation also credited the high level of engagement in the talks by top industry leaders — including CBS Corp. chairman Leslie Moonves, Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Kevin Tsujihara, Fox Networks Group’s Peter Rice and Disney/ABC TV’s Ben Sherwood – in providing the will for AMPTP negotiators to address the most pressing issues raised by the WGA. Throughout the talks, Lombardini with the support of the CEOs gradually met a significant number of the WGA’s most urgent demands in order to neuter them as strike-worthy issues. The studio chiefs weren’t thrilled about writing a big check — said to be about $90 million — to shore up the WGA’s over-taxed health plan, but they knew that was a central issue for writers at all levels that would have fueled strike sentiment had it been ignored.

The executives were sensitive to the needs of writers on the issue of short-order series compensation, the most complicated issue tackled in the negotiations, because of their own experience in managing the changing landscape of TV content. Meanwhile, Keyser and others on the negotiating committee spoke from personal experience in having moved from broadcast network TV to cable and streaming, where episode orders are much shorter.

“At FX we’ve been aware of these span issues and compensation issues related to short seasons of television,” FX Networks president-CEO John Landgraf told Variety. “We’ve been trying to deal with it on an ad-hoc basis to find solutions for our writers. We’re really glad the writers raised it as an industry-wide issue and glad the producers took it seriously enough to create a structure to address it. I don’t want to be employing (writers) to their detriment. I want to be employing people in ways that are productive and enriching. This does represent a fundamental structural change in the business that needed to be done.”

The compromise agreement hammered out establishes that a writer’s per-episode fee covers 2.4 weeks of work (the guild initially sought a two-week standard, while the studios first offered 2.6 weeks). Any work done over that time frame requires writers to earn extra compensation that is believed to be pro-rated on a weekly basis according to their episodic fee. This will help address the financial pressures that writers have encountered when working nearly as long (or longer) on shows that run 6-13 episodes as they would on a traditional 22- or 24-episode season. The extra compensation requirement is believed to exclude writers who earn more than $350,000 per season. The new terms for what became known in the talks as “span” provisions are believed to take effect for new series deals starting next year.

Another key tactical decision by the CEOs was to keep cool while the WGA conducted its strike authorization vote last month, a galvanizing tool for the guild that yielded a historic turnout and a whopping 96.3% approval of members eligible to vote. Had the CEOs and AMPTP publicly slammed the guild for taking that step, the gap between the sides would have only widened. “If we’d have gotten our backs up and said, ‘OK fine, if that’s how you want to be, bring it on,’ we would have had a strike,” said one senior executive in the AMPTP loop. “Carol kept everybody very steady during that time.”

Reps for the WGA West declined to comment for this story, as did the AMPTP.

WGA East president Michael Winship, reached as he was boarding a plane at LAX to return to New York late Tuesday morning, credited the full-throated support of WGA membership and the skill of the negotiating committee for powering through to achieve significant gains for writers. By the WGA’s math, the three-year contract includes $130 million in writer-specific compensation increases over the 2017 contract template that the AMPTP established in the deal it reached in December with the Directors Guild of America.

“I’d like to congratulate the members of the negotiating committee and the members for mobilizing so effectively and for being so responsive to the case that was presented to them,” Winship told Variety. “This was an extraordinary group of people who were put together to negotiate the deal on behalf of a membership that was extraordinarily well-informed about the issues and how they were affected by them.”

Winship added that social media became a potent platform for rallying support and awareness of the issues, particularly after negotiations got off to a bumpy start on March 13. (To wit, below is a tweet sent early Tuesday by negotiating committee member Shawn Ryan after the tentative agreement was clinched.)

“I can’t over-emphasize the role of social media,” he said. “I was flabbergasted by the power of the response (among members),” he said. “I was confident that we would do very well, but we did even better than I expected.”

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