The first potentially catastrophic labour strike which has hung over the Hollywood film industry for over a year now has been averted. In a press conference called for Friday afternoon, the Writers Guild Of America (WGA) said that it had reached a tentative agreement with the Alliance Of Motion Picture And Television Producers (AMPTP) and the three TV networks for a new three-year contract covering 11,000 theatrical and TV writers.

The negotiations, which had broken off earlier in the year and looked almost certain to end in a damaging strike, had continued after the expiration of the existing contract last Tuesday night, the first indication that an agreeement was near.

Overall in the economic package, writers will gain an estimated $41m over the three-year term of the contract (less than the $100m initially being demanded by WGA president John Wells, who was unable to attend the press conference since his wife had just given birth).

"Almost four months ago we entered into negotiations with the goal of securing a contract that would achieve increased respect for writers by successfully addressing their major economic and creative issues," said Michael Mahern, co-chair of the WGA's negotiating committee. "People told us it couldn't be done even if we stayed on strike for a year or more. Today, we are announcing an agreement that includes ground-breaking improvements and it has been accomplished without a strike."

However, for the contentious creative issues of possessory credit, no solution was reached. "To avoid a strike in which our entire community would have suffered, it was agreed that we would address this issue, as well as the proliferation of producer credits and other credits issues, in industry-wide discussions," said Mahern. "The Writers Guild and the Directors Guild have agreed to foster writer-director collaboration in both film and television, including: hosting joint seminars in which collaborators discuss their working relationships and highlighting collaboration in our respective publications."

New elements in the agreement include:

  • Credited screenwriters of both originals and adaptations will be paid a mandatory script publication fee of $5,000 per movie when a film is released on DVD and home video. The WGA estimates an increase in screenwriters' residuals of more than $1m from this clause by the third year of the new contract.
  • Fox Network will from now on be considered a network and pay 100% of network residuals two years from now, marking a 50% increase over the current formula.
  • The foreign residuals formula, established in 1970, will for the first time now apply to writers. Foreign residuals will now be paid in perpetuity; writers will receive 1.2% of foreign revenue after these sums reach specified threshholds. The WGA estimates an increase in foreign residuals of $1.3m over the term of the 2001 contract.
  • Writers will receive 1.2% of exhibitors' payments for the right to exhibit movies and TV programmes on video-on-demand or on the internet (ie when the viewer can watch a film or programme for a fixed number of times or over a limited time period). The agreement covers all studio libraries back to July 1, 1971, and new productions.
  • The WGA and the producers have also agreed to continue negotiations to cover the evolving markets for all other types of exhibition over the internt, such as when the viewer can download a movie to watch it an unlimited number of times.
  • Programmes written directly for the internet were also written into the contract for the first time, allowing the guilds and producers to cover, on a project by project basis, the employment of writers to write material for the internet with guaranteed pension and health benefits. Writers whose first work appears on the internet will be eligible for separated rights if their material is later used as the basis for a TV series or film.
  • The residuals formula has also been improved for made for pay TV programming (such as The Sopranos and Sex And The City on HBO or Soul Food on Showtime). This will result, says the guild, in an increase in total residuals payments to writers from under $300,000 per year to almost $4m a year.
  • Residuals for made-for-basic cable programmes (such as those made for Lifetime or Disney Channel) will be increased by 20%, an estimated increasse of $850,000 during the new contract term.
  • Initial compensation minimums for screenplays and teleplays will increase by 3.5% in each year of the contract, amounting to an additional $29m for writers.
  • Regarding diversity in the employment of screen and TV writers, the new contract says that one meeting per company will be held annually between the WGA and creative executives to assure that the issues of diversity are being addressed.
  • Prime time animation writers for all episodic TV programming have been organised by the WGA but neither they nor all other animation writers have been codified in the new contract. "The guild is disappointed that the companies refused to resolve these issues in this negotiations," said Mahern. "The guild will be redoubling our efforts to extend the protections of our basic agreement to all animation writers not represented by another union."
  • Screenwriters can now reacquire their screenplays between five and ten years after their writing was completed, an increase on the existing two-year window; in addition, screenwriters will now have the absolute right to reacquire screenplays optioned but not purchased.
  • Regarding creative issues, writers will now be present at cast readings and have the right to visit the set of the motion picture they have written. Shortly after a director is assigned to a project, he or she will meet with the writer to discuss creative issues. This meeting will take place prior to any decision to hire a new writer.
  • A joint creative rights committee will be established by the WGA and Directors Guild Of America (DGA) to discuss creative issues of mutual concern.
  • Writers will be listed on call sheets, staff directories or crew lists, will attend premieres, press junkets, festivals and cast and crew events. They will have enhanced presence in press kits, electronic press kits and DVDs.
  • The WGA will now bring the new contract to its members on both coasts and seek its ratification. As for actors, they start negotiations this Thursday (May 10) for a new contract addressing some similar and some other issues for their new contract which expires on June 30.

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