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Studios Give Writers 'Final Offer'

Film and TV companies' proposed pact excludes a hike in DVD payments. The guild's president calls it unacceptable.

June 03, 2004|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Studios and networks turned up the heat Wednesday in lumbering contract negotiations with Hollywood TV and film writers, making what they called a "final offer" that includes increased pay rates and healthcare contributions but skirts the more difficult demand by scribes for a bigger slice of DVD revenue.

Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the Writers Guild of America, West, immediately called the offer "inadequate and unacceptable on every issue of concern" but said writers were willing to keep talking. Petrie, in an interview, said it was unlikely that guild officials would put the offer to a vote by members.

Studios are proposing a three-year deal. But writers have been seeking a one-year pact, which they believe would give them added clout next year because the studio contracts with actors and directors also are up in 2005. Short of an extension, Petrie said, writers are content to keep the pact open until then.

Still, the proposal by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers suggests that the companies are running out of patience.

Writers have been working since May 2 without a contract. Studios also recently started negotiations with Teamsters and are eager to resolve their differences with writers.

The studio offer includes several inducements to get writers to take the deal, including an estimated $16.5 million in healthcare contributions to shore up the writers' medical fund. It also includes an offer to make the contract retroactive to May 2, provided writers accept the proposal within 30 days.

Although no increase in DVD payments is proposed, studios said writers would get a hike if actors and directors later negotiated one. They also would receive any pay increases for work appearing over the Internet that was negotiated by actors and directors, or would have the option of reopening that issue.

Petrie said that proposal was unacceptable to the 12,000 writers in the guild and that writers didn't want to burden actors and directors with negotiating issues that would affect scribes.

Studios made it clear again that they had no plans of giving in on the DVD issue, the single most contentious matter on the table. Writers say the DVD boom has produced windfall profits that should be shared with them. But studios argue that with film costs soaring, DVDs are the only way studios can make their money back.

"Further burdening a film's revenue stream without, at the very least, recouping production, distribution and marketing costs is simply fiscally irresponsible," chief studio negotiator Nick Counter said.

Although talks are nearing a standoff, labor and studio executives still don't believe a strike is likely for now. But Petrie said "there should be no mistaking how far apart we and the companies are."

The most drastic step open to studios is a lockout that would require using nonunion replacements or filling prime-time slots with unscripted shows. Tension may mount in July, when work on fall TV episodes begins to shift into high gear.

But Petrie says the guild believes there is too much at stake for studios to lock out writers.

"I really don't see that in the cards," Petrie said. "It's not in their interest at all."

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