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Hollywood Unions Reach Contracts for Cellphone Shows

Pay-and-benefit deals for ABC's `Lost' are called `a crucial first step into a new frontier.'

April 25, 2006|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood labor leaders on Monday announced what could be a big deal for the very small screen: the first union contracts covering those who make TV shows for cellphones.

The deals provide union pay and benefits to actors, writers and directors for two-minute "mobisodes" of ABC's hit show "Lost" -- who will be drawn from the cast and crew of the television show.

Although the agreements cover just one show, union officials and producers expect they will provide blueprints for similar new-media deals.

The contract is a "crucial first step into a new frontier of production and content distribution," said Alan Rosenberg, president of the Screen Actors Guild, one of three unions that negotiated contracts.

The deals also bode well for cable and broadcast networks that hope to avoid labor strife as they experiment with new ways to exploit their shows in a host of new media outlets, including the Internet and cellphones.

The agreements could help lessen labor tensions that have been running high in Hollywood. Writers, actors and directors, for example, recently blasted ABC's decision to pay residuals on TV episode sales to video iPod users under the same payment formula for DVD sales.

Union officials said Monday's agreements had been a high priority for members since Touchstone announced plans last year to develop the "Lost Video Diaries" for Verizon Wireless cellphone customers.

"This is a substantial gain for the talent community," said Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West.

The Directors Guild of America also negotiated an agreement to cover directors, unit production managers and assistant directors.

Union officials feared that Touchstone would not provide union benefits for those working on the episodes, which tell short stories inspired by the TV show about jetliner passengers stranded on an island.

But they won support from executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, who -- with the backing of co-creator J.J. Abrams -- insisted that proposed episodes be covered under union contracts to maintain the show's quality.

The cast of "Lost" also declared its support after Screen Actors Guild officials visited the set in Hawaii late last year.

"This can really be a benchmark that [demonstrates] the guilds and the studios can work hand in hand in this new technological era," Cuse said. Mark Pedowitz, president of Touchstone Television, called the agreements groundbreaking.

"We look forward to finding additional ways in which we can work together," he said.

The agreements, which expire in 2007 and 2008, guarantee union health and pension benefits and minimum payments.

Writers, for example, will receive at least $800 per two-minute episode. Actors will receive an escalating minimum wage for an eight-hour day that begins at $425 as of April 1 and increases to $759 by June 30, 2008.

After the episodes are run for 13 weeks, writers and directors will receive a share of residual payments equal to 1.2% of the license fee received by ABC; actors will receive 3.6%.

While common in Europe, cellphone TV is in its infancy in U.S. But interest in working with wireless carriers is growing in Hollywood as networks and studios look for new ways to make money and promote their movies and TV shows.

Verizon Wireless' video service, for example, offers clips of headlines from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central, while comedian Jay Leno is featured on Sprint's video service.

Fox has produced more than 100 cellphone shows, including one based on the drama "24." The "Lost" mobisodes will be produced when the series begins shooting in August and should be available -- at a price to be determined -- to Verizon customers by the fall.

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