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Writers Guild Wages War of Words, Numbers

Labor: Leaders say members are willing to strike, as union and studios take their cases to the public.


Writers Guild of America leaders vowed Friday that their members are willing to strike if studios continue playing hardball in contract negotiations.

Guild leaders said that was the clear message they came away with after a meeting of 1,000 writers Tuesday that followed last week's breakdown of negotiations, largely over the issue of residuals that writers get when their work is rerun.

"If we'd had to have a strike vote that night, I'm sure it would have been a 90%-plus vote," said Michael Mahern, co-head of the guild's negotiating committee, during a meeting guild leaders held with reporters at its Los Angeles headquarters.

The comments came as both sides began turning up the heat in the spin wars. The contract with more than 11,000 writers nationwide runs through May 1. Last week's breakdown heightened worries that writers will strike, and also that studios will have trouble negotiating a new deal with actors.

John Wells, president of the Writers Guild's western faction, which includes most Hollywood screen and TV writers, said the guild's leaders enjoy the support of members because they "have avoided some of the pitfalls" that plagued past negotiators.

"I think we're a little bit more in touch with what people are asking us to do than we have been in the past," Wells said.

Writers Guild officials released numbers showing that studios would pay $33.24 million more a year under the guild's proposals, or an increase of 2.6% from what their writing budgets are now. They also broke down the effect by producer, showing Warner Bros. Inc. would pay the most at $6.16 million annually, largely because it is a major TV producer and because Warner's numbers also include figures for sister company HBO.

J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the chief industry negotiator, disputed the guild numbers. He said the guild's amounts don't include such things as the money producers pay to writers above minimum scale, and also fail to factor in the growing license fees cable channels are paying for programming, which in turn means more money for writers. He said studios will release their own numbers next week.

Among producers, the second-highest annual increase would be paid by Fox at $4.88 million more, much of that because the guild is demanding that Fox pay 100% of the residual rates other networks do. Fox historically has enjoyed a discount, now at 66%, because it was a fledging network.

Other increases include $3.95 million a year for Viacom Inc., $3.29 million for Sony Corp., $3.14 million for Walt Disney Co., $1.57 million for Universal and $660,000 for DreamWorks SKG. Among networks, NBC would pay $1.24 million more annually, with CBS at $940,000 and ABC at $350,000.

To put those numbers in perspective, Wells said CBS' increase is about equal to the license fee for one episode of a first-year, one-hour television show. He said NBC's number is roughly equal to the second-year license fee for a one-hour show or two episodes of a half-hour series.

With the contract expiring May 2 and talks unlikely to resume until April, the writers are taking their case to the public, trying to gain sympathy by showing that the money they want pales in comparison to what studios splurge on special effects, star salaries and perks.

But studios argue that what the contract writers are proposing would continue to squeeze already thin profit margins and would be more expensive because other guilds and unions would have to get similar deals.

On Friday, guild leaders said that, assuming actors and directors got the same deal, studios would pay at most about $400 million more during the three-year contract. Counter said the number is much higher, but added he won't have an estimate until the studios finish computing their numbers.

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