Leaders of the Writers Guild of America West have given a four-year contract extension with a two-year option to exec director David Young, who organized the 2007-08 writers strike that rocked Hollywood.
In a strong endorsement of Young’s 12-year tenure, the WGA West board unanimously voted to extend the exec’s contract. WGA West president David A. Goodman confirmed the extension to Variety.
“David Young has done exceptional work,” Goodman said. “I know I speak for the board of directors and the membership that he will continue in that capacity.”
The extension and options lock in Young to head the 9,000-member guild for the next two rounds of successor negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which serves as the negotiating unit for the showbiz congloms and their production companies. The current three-year deal expires May 1, 2020.
Young led the negotiations a year ago for the successor contract with a deal being hammered out an hour before the contract expired. The WGA touted gains in short-order series compensation, family leave and shoring up the health plan.
The WGA West is currently in a battle with Hollywood’s top talent agencies over what’s perceived by the guild as potential conflicts of interest due to the agencies moving aggressively moving into production — meaning that the same company represents the creative talent on one side of the table and is the employer on the other.
The WGA told members on April 6 that it had sent the Association of Talent Agents a 12-month notice to terminate the existing deal, known as the Artists’ Manager Basic Agreement, and has asked for extensive changes in how agents do business. The terms and conditions of the current agreement will remain in effect through April 6, 2019, but will expire if a new agreement is not reached.
No meetings have been set and leaders of the agencies have privately expressed frustration over what they say is an unwillingness by the WGA to meet informally on the issue.
Young was given a five-year extension via unanimous vote in 2013. According to the guild’s latest LM-2 report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Young was paid $573,032 for the reporting period ended March 31, 2017.
Young joined the WGA in 2004 as its organizing director and replaced John McLean on an interim basis in 2005 after the board fired McLean over disappointment with the failure to achieve a change in the DVD residual formula. Firing McLean portended a hardened bargaining position as then-president Patric Verrone promised the WGA would take a more assertive approach in negotiations and organizing.
Young lost the interim tag in 2006 as the sniping escalated between guild leaders and then-AMPTP chief Nick Counter and bargaining went nowhere. With the guild having prepped its members extensively, the WGA negotiating committee received a strike authorization of over 90% in October 2007 and the 100-day strike began in November after negotiations cratered on a variety of divisive issues such as how writers would be compensated for new-media work and for reuse of their work in digital platforms.
Young was widely credited for running a well-organized strike featuring extensive picketing and rallies that benefited from strong support by the Screen Actors Guild and the Teamsters. The work stoppage forced a halt to most TV series in the middle of a season. The strike ended after the WGA accepted in a deal in February 2008 with terms that were similar to those negotiated by the Directors Guild of America a few weeks earlier.
The extension had not been revealed to the membership but Goodman said Friday that the board had taken the vote several months earlier. The news was first reported by Deadline.
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The Ol’ SAG Watchdog
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Just months before K.J. Apa was born, another entertainment-related auto crash claimed a life–and sparked a documentary. But has anything really changed?
The single-vehicle crash that destroyed Riverdale star K.J. Apa’s car last week left him without serious injuries, but others haven’t been so lucky in the past, and the late-night incident shines a spotlight yet again on a decades-old problem of fatigue and late-night work in entertainment — and on the larger problem of overall safety in the industry.
SAG-AFTRA will be sending a team to Vancouver, British Columbia, to investigate, as previously reported, and The Hollywood Reporter has learned that union president Gabrielle Carteris will be leading that team — a reflection of the importance of the matter and the scrutiny the accident has invited.
It seems axiomatic that no one should die making a movie or TV show, but many people have: Over a quarter-century, the Associated Press found that at least 43 people had died on film sets in the U.S. and 150 had been seriously injured.
Coincidentally, the crash involving the 20-year-old CW star comes 20 years after assistant cameraman Brent Hershman fell asleep at the wheel while driving home after a 19-hour day on New Line’s Pleasantville — and, like Apa, crashed into a utility pole. But, unlike Apa, Hershman died. That led one of Hershman’s colleagues, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, to create the 2006 documentary Who Needs Sleep?, which focused on the issue. Yet here we are again.
Sources told THR on Thursday that Apa had worked a 16-hour day prior to the crash and that he had a 45-minute drive each way between set and his lodgings. Did that leave him enough time to sleep before the next day’s call? Young adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, experts say.
Riverdale producer Warner Bros. said Thursday that Apa and other castmembers can ask for transportation if they are feeling too tired to drive, but that puts the onus on often-vulnerable actors who don’t want to be seen as troublesome. Warners also said that Apa had worked 14.2 hours prior to the crash, and 2.5 and 7.7 on the preceding days. But it’s not clear whether those hours included meal breaks and possibly other unpaid, non-“work time” periods. That could add an hour or more to the 7.7-hour day and two or more hours to the 14.2-hour day.
Warners did not respond to a request for clarification or for additional figures regarding working hours on Warner Bros. or CW shows. Also unknown is whether Apa had been subject to what is known as a “forced call,” also termed “invasion of the rest period.”
Those rather brawny terms refer to a scenario in which a producer fails to accord a minimum 12-hour rest period between dismissal of an actor one day and his or her call time the next, a requirement long codified in the agreement between the studios and SAG, now SAG-AFTRA.
But how that 12-hour period is calculated — when the clock starts and stops — emerged as a contentious issue in the negotiations just months ago between the studios and SAG-AFTRA. The results of those negotiations were deeply unsatisfying to some performers, putting the union on the defensive.
The issue is this: Should that 12-hour clock start ticking as soon as the actor leaves the set and keep ticking until he or she is back on set the next day? That so-called “set-to-set” approach is favorable to the studio because it means that an actor’s transportation time from set to hotel and back again is considered non-working time and is permitted to eat into the 12-hour rest period.
For that reason, actors advocate a “portal-to-portal” approach, where the clock doesn’t start until the performer arrives at his or her hotel, and it stops once the performer leaves the hotel. That ensures something closer to a true 12 hours of rest (or an hour or two less, if one factors in calls home to family, responding to business and personal emails and so on). It means that transportation time doesn’t eat into the rest period — and also means that performers get paid more because the time in transit is considered work time. That makes portal-to-portal doubly frustrating for producers.
According to a SAG-AFTRA outline, portal-to-portal “remains the rule for performers working on overnight locations,” while workdays at “Producer’s Base” are calculated set-to-set. Unfortunately, none of these terms are defined in the union agreement, which, like all of the Hollywood guild agreements, is consistently opaque. As production (and production offices) became dispersed throughout the country and beyond, producers have treated those locations as their base, meaning that set-to-set calculations would prevail.
After its 2014 negotiations, the union announced that portal-to-portal rules remained unchanged, but that wasn’t the case this time around. In the 2017 deal, the union agreed that “the location where the majority of principal photography for a television series takes place can be ‘Producer’s Base.’ ” That generated a lot of bitter disagreement in this year’s SAG-AFTRA elections, with the union (and, implicitly, the dominant Unite for Strength faction) saying that the agreement “merely acknowledges the reality that already exists” and was in exchange for other concessions made by the studios, while the dissident Membership First faction and former MF member and union presidential candidate Pete Antico vociferously disagreed.
All of this comes against a backdrop of safety problems in the industry, including the death of stuntman John Bernecker this year after a fall to a concrete floor and the death of assistant camerawoman Sarah Jones in a 2014 train collision that occurred after Midnight Rider director Randall Miller instructed the film company to shoot on a trestle bridge even though it was a live track and the production had no permit.
Fatigue, errors, recklessness, even indifference: Whatever the cause, the record of death and injury in the entertainment industry is bleak. Who needs sleep? Maybe it’s time for a sequel: Who Needs Safety at All?
The threat of a writers strike continued to mount today as the WGA held the last of 11 membership informational meetings in advance of next month’s negotiations for a new film and TV contract.
“We’re always ready for a strike,” a TV writer laughed as he left the meeting at the Beverly Hilton. “Television is in another Golden Age and the companies are reaping record profits, but writers aren’t sharing in that. Our incomes are going down, so it’s going to be a tough negotiation.”
“Writers deserve more and the companies can afford to pay it,” said another TV writer who attended the meeting, “and we may just have to fight for it.” As for a strike, he said: “I pray that there will not be one, but I fear that there will be one.”
“The general feeling is that everybody would prefer to work,” said another writer, “but given the companies’ profits and our declining wages, it’s now or never. This meeting was not a strike vote, but we have certain needs that have to be met. Nobody wants to strike, but we are willing to if we have to.”“We are all standing strong for the union,” said another writer. Another added: “We have a unified guild.”
Solidarity and the credible threat of a strike are certainly helpful going into any contract negotiation, and many of those interviewed today said they hope the companies recognize that they are united behind the union’s “legitimate” and “reasonable” demands, and will make a fair deal to avoid a strike.
Guild records show that “overall median earnings increased 17.4% between 2008 and 2014,” but guild leaders say that “the average income of members in both features and series TV have actually decreased over the (last) decade.”
There’s no doubt that Hollywood’s film writers have seen their wages steadily erode over the past two decades, largely due to a decline in the number of films being released. According to the WGA West’s annual reports, screenwriters earned less in 2015 ($362.1 million) than they did in 1996 ($364.4 million) – and that’s in real dollars. Adjusted for inflation, they collectively earned about a third less in 2015 than they did in 1996.
The guild’s records also show that in 2015, TV writers earned $803 million under the WGA West’s basic contract, for an average annual income of $194,478, which was $48,936 more than they made in 2006.
But those numbers are only based on guild minimums, and don’t include the moneys they make as writers employed in additional capacities, such as producers and executive producers. And that’s where TV writer-producers are taking it on the chin. Two recent guild surveys of its working members found a 23% overall decline in weekly compensation for series TV writer-producers from the 2013-14 season to the 2015-15 season – a downward trend that guild officials maintain has been going on for a decade as the TV industry continues to go through a major restructuring.
The leading cause for the downturn is the shortening of many shows’ seasons, with fewer episodes meaning fewer dollars for writer-producers. In years past, writers might be paid for 22 episodes strung out over 44 weeks, but it’s now not uncommon for seasons to last for only 10 or 12 episodes.
“Everybody agrees that television is changing and that the way writers are paid needs to change,” said a writer leaving today’s meeting. “Nobody wants a strike, and the union will do its darndest to get a fair deal.”
The guild’s ailing – and some say failing – health plan will be another key bargaining point when negotiations with management’s AMPTP begin on March 13.
As negotiations between the WGA and the studios draw near, the drumbeat for a writers strike intensifies. As part of the union’s preparations for tough bargaining with the producers and a potential walkout, leaders of the WGA East and WGA West last week sent a letter to members, outlining top battleground issues including improving the union’s ailing health fund, getting paid family leave, raising compensation in new media, closing the pay gap between basic cable and broadcast, and loosening exclusivity clauses.
In the letter, union leaders painted a gloomy economic picture of corporate greed and worker exploitation to bolster support for their contract demands, claiming that while the operating profits of the six major media conglomerates have doubled to $49 billion in the past decade, the average incomes of their members “in both features and series TV have actually decreased over that same decade.”
As it turns out, that’s only half true. The WGA West’s annual reports show that while the average earnings of screenwriters have indeed declined steadily over the last 10 years, the average earnings of television writers have actually increased significantly during the same time frame, even adjusting for inflation.
The guild’s records show that in 2015, the last year for which data is available (read the annual report here), 4,129 TV writers earned $803 million under the WGA West’s basic contract, for an average annual income of $194,478. Compare that to 10 years ago (read that report here), when 3,335 TV writers earned $454 million – for an average annual salary of $136,132 – and it’s clear that guild leaders are blowing smoke. A guild spokesman declined comment.
On average, TV writers made $48,936 more a year in 2015 than they did in 2006 – a 33.6% increase. Even adjusting for inflation, which comes to about 17% since 2006, they still took home some $40,000 more in real purchasing power than they did in 2006.
Even so, and despite a rapidly expanding marketplace for American TV shows, many TV writers are feeling pinched by shorter orders on episodic series. That’s especially hard for writing teams, which afford producers two writers for the price of one.
There’s no doubt, however, that guild leaders are right about the plight of Hollywood’s film writers, who have seen their wages steadily erode over the past two decades. According to the WGA West reports, they earned less in 2015 ($362.1 million) than they did in 1996 ($364.4 million) – and that’s in real dollars. Adjusted for inflation, they collectively earned about a third less in 2015 than they did in 1996.
That decline is reflected in their average annual earnings, as well. In 2005, there were 1,940 screenwriters who collectively earned $453.9 million under the WGA West’s contract – averaging $233,969, or $32,691 more than they’d average 10 years later.
Today, earnings from television are more than double those from film, but it wasn’t always so. For decades, writers’ earnings from film were always higher than those from television, but that changed in 1999. And it’s been the case every year since, except for the strike year of 2007, when producers scrambled to get their writers to turn in completed scripts and rewrites before the widely anticipated work stoppage over new media revenues. That strike year, ironically, saw a record $525.4 million in writers’ film earnings, and according to the guild, “Much of the increased work appears to be related to accelerated employment prior to the strike.”
The WGA is expected to begin negotiations for a new film and TV contract next month, and it remains to be seen whether strike fears will lead to the kind of “accelerated employment” that took place prior to the 100-day strike of 2007-2008.
If not, screenwriters’ earnings are expected to continue their slide, mostly because the major studios are turning out fewer films every year. The number of films rated by the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration have been in a steep decline in recent years. In 2006, there were 853 films rated, rising to 897 in 2008. Since then, however, the trend has been steadily downward, falling to just 613 in 2015 – or 285 fewer than in 2008. The same general trend can be seen in the number of films released each year by MPAA-member companies. In 2006, they released 296 films, and it’s been downhill ever since. In 2015, they released just 167 films – almost 45% fewer than in 2006.
Even so, writers’ “total earnings,” as the guild refers to all earnings other than residuals, have topped $1 billion in each of the last five years, and in 2015 exceeded those in 2010 by $187 million – an increase of nearly 19%.
Residuals, meanwhile, have been booming, increasing every year since 2009, giving WGA West members an additional $400 million in 2015 alone, bringing their true total earnings that year to over $1.5 billion. Most of the boom, however, has been in television and new media. TV residuals have increased 50% since 2010, and new media residuals by a whopping 896%. In 2015, new media residuals totaled $25.4 million, topping primetime network residuals by $6 million.
In some years, residuals account for a third of writers’ gross take-home pay, and in others, about a quarter, with residuals from TV shows continuing to outpace residuals from feature films. In 2015, TV residuals totaled $261.7 million, which was $123 million more than film residuals. And that year, screenwriters received $4 million less in residuals than they did in 2010.
If screenwriters’ earnings continue to plunge, the surest way to help stabilize their incomes would be to adjust the contract’s residuals formulae to give them a larger share of the reuse pie, but that would probably require some trade-offs.
One issue that’s certain to be a major bargaining issue next month is the dire condition of the WGA’s Health Fund. Widely considered to be the best – if not the best run – in the industry, the fund “has run deficits for all but one of the last four years, forcing a dip into long-untouched reserves,” guild leaders wrote in a letter to their members recently. This downturn, they said, is “due to rapid inflation in health care costs nationwide.” The letter was signed by WGA West president Howard Rodman, WGA East president Michael Winship, by the vice presidents and secretary-treasurers of both unions, and by the guild’s entire negotiating committee.
The WGA East doesn’t make its members’ earnings publicly available, and declined to do so when asked. The East gets only a fraction of the TV work, but the two guilds share the same sickly health plan. “As we approach negotiations for a 2017 Minimum Basic Agreement,” WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson reported to the guild’s council last May, “two things have become clear:
The Producer-Writers Guild Health Fund’s expenditures are rising far more quickly than employer contributions, so we now face large operating deficits.
The producers are making money hand over fist. $47 billion in television profits in 2014. Feature film box office receipts reached record levels in 2015 – more than $11 billion in the U.S. and Canada alone, with China and other overseas markets expanding even more rapidly.”
These two things taken together, he wrote, “suggest that we should insist on significantly increased employer contributions to the health fund during MBA negotiations next year. I think it is a safe bet that the AMPTP (the companies’ collective bargaining association) anticipates exactly that. But of course winning significant amounts at the bargaining table requires members to make real commitments to action away from the table. And we can anticipate that the companies will insist, as a condition of paying more, that the union trustees – appointed by the WGA East and by the WGA West – agree to cuts in benefits at the same time.”
The Health Fund’s latest financial statement for 2015 notes it paid out more than $130 million in claims that year, and that its net assets had fallen nearly $25 million from the beginning of the year to the end – from $196.3 million to $171.5 million. Currently, employers contribute 9% of covered earnings to fund the health plan, but barring drastic cuts, they’ll have to pay more to save it. And therein could lie the spark for a strike, because one sure way to get members riled up is for management to insist on rollbacks, especially from a union that considers itself under siege, whether it is or not.
In a communique with their members, the guild leaders also asked for their input on numerous other contract demands, including:
Increase minimum compensation in all areas
Increase residuals for undercompensated reuse markets
Expand types of made-for New Media programs subject to MBA minimums
Increase contributions to Pension Plan
Strengthen economic and workplace protections for television and new media writers employed and compensated on per episode basis
Strengthen regulation of options and exclusivity provisions in television and new media employment contracts
Address inequities in compensation of writing teams employed under term deals for television and new media series
Provide paid family leave for writers employed under term deals for television and new media series
Amend definition of a professional writer to include writing for new media
Increase funding for Showrunner Training Program and Tri-Guild Audit Program
Modify and expand all arbitrator panels
Modify requirements for work lists and other information submitted by companies
Few, if any, of those proposals, however, are likely to be strike issues, and the guild, as is the custom with pattern bargaining, is expected to be offered the same big boost in new media residuals the DGA recently received, but it will no doubt take some horse-trading to get it.
As for the guild leaders’ claim that the six major companies – Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, CBS Corp and Viacom – had operating profits of $49 billion? That’s actually true, but closer to $50 billion, according to SEC filings. But their collective operating profits are only up 79% from 2006, not the 100% that the guilds claim. And comparing the six media conglomerates to what they were a decade ago is also misleading. Ten years ago, for instance, Comcast was just a cable operator that didn’t own NBCUniversal, Bravo or the USA Network. Disney hadn’t yet bought Marvel Entertainment, and its operating profits include revenues from Disneyland, Disney Cruises and a whole host of ancillary businesses that don’t have anything to do with writers. And 10 years ago, Time Warner was still saddled with AOL – widely considered one of the worst mergers of all time – which it has since spun off, and Fox was News Corp, which included newspapers like the New York Post, which has since been spun off and didn’t have anything to do with the WGA or its members either.
The guild’s view of the industry’s massive profitability also doesn’t appear to have taken into account Paramount Pictures’ downturn or Sony Pictures’ $1 billion write-down last month on its movie operations.
The $49 billion “operating profits” figure cited by guild leaders isn’t really a true reflection of how well the companies are performing, either. Growing operating profits may simply mean that a company has gotten bigger — the way Comcast did when it bought NBCUniversal. Operating profits also don’t include big expenses such as debt payments and taxes, so in theory, a company could keep making deals that increase its operating profit line until it goes bankrupt.
A truer gauge of a company’s financial performance is its operating margin – a comparison of a company’s operating income to its revenues, which would also grow with acquisitions. And here the six major conglomerates, as a group, are also showing improvement – to a 23% margin from 18% 10 years ago, but nothing like the doubling of operating profits cited by guild leaders.
Individually, the biggest margin gains over the past decade are at Disney – to 26% from 19%, mostly reflecting growth at ESPN; at Fox – to 22% from 15% due to the strength of Fox News and getting rid of low-margin newspapers; and Time Warner – to 28% from 17% by getting rid of AOL and Time Inc.
Viacom, on the other hand, has seen its operating margin drop to 20% from 24% due to sagging ratings at Nickelodeon and the near collapse of Paramount. CBS, which released its quarterly earnings Wednesday, saw a small drop in 20015 to 17% from 18% a decade ago.
Some WGA West leaders have been talking up the threat of a strike – if not a strike itself – since the guild’s officer and board elections in September 2015. David Goodman, who would go on to be elected vice president, urged members not to forget “how important the threat of a strike is in negotiations.”
And Aaron Mendelsohn, who was elected secretary-treasurer, told members that he believes in taking a “strong and pragmatic approach that utilizes the strike vote judiciously and only under certain circumstances, like when our sacred cows are threatened (health and pension, residuals, etc.), or if we need to stake a fair claim in a new delivery system or work area, or if rollbacks remain on the table.”
And Patric Verrone, who as president led the guild’s last strike, reminded members during his 2015 campaign for reelection to the board that “Leverage in collective bargaining is most effectively built through the careful development of a viable strike threat.”
SAG-AFTRA’s national board has given a two-year extension to David White as National Executive Director to 2020.
.The board voted unanimously on Saturday to extend White’s agreement to Oct. 11, 2020, effective immediately. Details of the agreement are confidential.
SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris, Executive Vice President Rebecca Damon and Secretary-Treasurer Jane Austin said in a joint statement, “Securing a long-term commitment from David guarantees his continued strategic operations leadership and industry-leading vision. He is a wise steward of SAG-AFTRA’s resources and a tough bargainer when he leads our contract negotiations. SAG-AFTRA members will continue to benefit from his commitment to ensuring good wages and safe working conditions. We are very fortunate to have him and look forward to continued achievement throughout the organization.”
The move comes two years and three days after the SAG-AFTRA board gave White a four-year contract extension to 2018. White is also the chief negotiator for the union, which reps about 160,000 performers.
The current SAG-AFTRA contract expires on June 30. SAG-AFTRA recently launched its wages and working conditions meetings with members to hammer out terms of its contract proposal to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, but has not yet set a date for starting negotiations.
White said in a statement, “I want to thank President Carteris, our elected officers and national board of directors for their support. We are engaged in exciting, groundbreaking efforts to protect professionals worldwide who make a living in the entertainment and media industries, and I am thrilled to continue with this essential work. It is a privilege to lead a staff of such exceptional talent and I look forward to the next four years of being a member of their team.”
White was general counsel from 2002 to 2006 for SAG and replaced became national executive director in 2009 when the board fired Doug Allen from the post. White was opposed by the self-styled progressives of the Membership First faction of elected leaders, but that group saw its clout diminished in the subsequent years.
White campaigned actively for a merger of SAG with AFTRA along with SAG President Ken Howard, asserting that the combined union would have more clout and operate more effectively. White became the national executive director of SAG-AFTRA in 2012 when the members voted to combine the unions.
In early 2014, White’s name emerged as a candidate for a similar post with the National Basketball Players Assn. However, the players union opted select Washington, D.C. attorney Michelle Roberts for the post, and the SAG-AFTRA board extended his deal later that year to 2018.
According to SAG-AFTRA’s LM-2 filing with the U.S. Dept. of Labor in 2015, White received a base salary of $600,485 in the fiscal year ended April 30, 2015, along with $31,630 in official disbursements.
How much of your dues money will go toward his extension? Ah, sorry folks, you’re only the ones paying it with your dues money! You’ll just have to wait until next year until the government forces him to reveal it in the LM-2. But, but, but…