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DreamWorks Accused of Union Shopping

Writers Guild says the studio aims to put some jobs in a lower-paying union's jurisdiction. The firm denies the claim.

September 26, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

The Writers Guild of America is accusing DreamWorks SKG of throwing its members to the lions.

In a stinging letter sent to members Thursday, Victoria Riskin, president of the West Coast division of the guild, alleged that DreamWorks was pressuring 12 writers on its upcoming "Father of the Pride" animated show into accepting representation by the Animation Guild Local 839 instead of the writers' union.

The show is about a pride of white lions that perform in Siegfried & Roy's Las Vegas act.

If DreamWorks successfully shifts the writers into the animation guild, Riskin said, they would receive lesser benefits and lower pay than writers get under the WGA agreement with Hollywood's studios.

She further accused DreamWorks of refusing to pay the writers unless they signed inferior contracts.

DreamWorks executives adamantly denied Riskin's allegations, claiming they were caught in a dispute between two unions.

"We're sort of in the middle here," DreamWorks spokesman Andy Spahn said.

In a letter to Riskin sent last week, DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg said the company was legally bound to have its writers represented by the animation guild, adding that the company was adjusting pay and benefits so no writer got shortchanged.

"It is not now nor has it ever been our intention that DreamWorks Animation gain any financial advantage," Katzenberg wrote.

At issue is a computer-animated comedy that won't even be seen on TV for another year.

"Father of the Pride" is being developed to begin airing on General Electric Co.'s NBC network in the fall of 2004. It is considered a key new show for NBC, whose long-running hit comedies "Friends" and "Frasier" are expected to end.

"Pride" is important as well for DreamWorks, the studio founded by moguls Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Katzenberg. The company has a spotty track record in TV, having hit with "Spin City" but missing badly with shows such as "Ink."

The feud, which involves 10 writers and two executive producers who double as writers, has led to a series of angry letters being faxed across Hollywood, where TV writing jobs are a precious commodity.

Lawyers representing the animation guild, part of the giant International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said in a letter to Riskin that they were outraged the writers union was infringing its turf. The letter accused the WGA of unfair labor practices and threatened a suit.

Steve Hulett, business representative with the animation guild, said the union can't just give up representing the workers. "The moment I give up jurisdiction is the moment I'm cleaning out my desk," he said.

DreamWorks maintains that the show is being developed by the company's animation unit, which has no agreement with the WGA but does have a legally binding labor pact with the animation guild.

But the WGA is accusing DreamWorks of a sleight of hand by classifying the writers as part of its animation unit.

Instead, the WGA argues, they should be treated like prime-time comedy writers, who would be covered under DreamWorks agreements with the WGA.

Riskin said writers on every prime-time animated show over the last decade, including "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," "Futurama" and "King of the Hill," had been represented by WGA agreements.

The "Father of the Pride" writers, Riskin asserted, "do not want to become the test case for production companies trying to circumvent the prevailing standards set by the Writers Guild contract."

Indeed, the WGA disputes that "Father of the Pride" writers are getting as much or more than they would under its contract.

It contends, for example, that DreamWorks first promised to pay residuals to writers, then decided instead to create a bonus pool that is activated only if "Father of the Pride" is renewed for a second season.

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