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WGA Strike Primer: Looking at the DGA Deal Memo

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There is a certain psychology that tends to come with the announcement that "a deal has been made." Especially during a labor stoppage, when so many people are desperately looking for a resolution, that phrase has such a powerful allure.

And it should. A deal does offer hope. But a bad deal gave craft guilds 4-cents in home video. So, where does this deal between the AMPTP corporations and the DGA fit in?

There are 12,000 members of the Writers Guild. That means there are 12,000 answers. This is just one.

The WGA remains waiting to see the DGA deal, prepared to make a reasoned assessment. Like the rest of us, all we have is a press release. So, no full judgment can possibly be made yet, by anyone. Including here. Just early impressions.

The best thing for writers is that the AMPTP now seems willing to talk again. That's huge. But make no mistake, this is no "olive branch." This is part of a calculated strategy to wait out the WGA and get the acquiescent DGA to make the lowest deal, before going back to writers. That the AMPTP corporations are now willing to have "informal discussions" to see whether formal talks should re-start is very positive. It's also disingenuous, because the AMPTP knows full-well why they should negotiate. Sure, this is a face-saving phrase, so let them have it.

(And how nice that the AMPTP realizes it can now deal with the WGA's evil, crazy leadership. What a surprise.)

It's important to keep in mind when looking at the Directors Guild offer that this is an offer for -- directors. Though areas overlap with writers, two-thirds of the DGA are assistant directors, unit production managers, technical coordinators, stage managers and even production associates. For just one example, residuals are not remotely as critical to the DGA as they are to writers.

In the DGA press release, there are some very good issues. And some awful ones. But at least there are important issues worthy of discussion.

For instance, the press release mentions jurisdiction for the Internet. And this is huge, a major gain. But - no payment minimums are given for writing original content. Without any minimums, having jurisdiction is meaningless. (It's akin to being the King of Big Screen TVs. Though the title is nice, you're lacking military support.) Though an empty phrase, it's a phrase that at least can be built on. Make that, must be built on.

Similarly, the definition of "low" budget could be improved. More importantly, it's unclear what would happen if a webseries moved to network TV. That's not an acceptable loophole.

While ad-supported streaming is an impressive five-fold increase on the WGA offer, it's still just $1,200. (And sitcoms a paltry $600.) Further, since that dollar figure doesn't kick in for 17 days (or 24 for new shows), it would likely work out to zero. More to the point, either you pay for re-runs or you don't. (And you do.) Calling it "promotion" is a fake buzz-word to pay zero.

Would a network shift all its reruns to the Internet to save ungodly money? It doesn't seem likely, and would probably cause an explosion among craft guilds - but as we've learned, the AMPTP corporations seem tone deaf to explosions. ("If you don't like it, go on strike," might become a familiar phrase.) But the question isn't "would" they do such a thing, but could they? And they absolutely could.

I'm reminded of an amazing line sent to me by Larry Gelbart in private email. To this day, I can't believe it was just a tossed-off comment, and not something from Bartlett's Book of Quotations -

"Why go out of our way to create loopholes of any kind that history teaches us will be turned into nooses?"

- Larry Gelbart, December 16, 1992

So, close the loophole.

The DGA deal does include a "Sunset Provision" which sounds comforting, to revisit the numbers in three years. But this is the most hollow point of the whole deal. The AMPTP corporations haven't revisited home video/DVD in 24 years and even demanded the WGA take it off the table this year. They haven't revisited cable rates in the 19 years since being introduced. Whatever writers want, they had better get now. Because it's not being revisited.

Receiving distributor's gross for streaming is a significant start. Though low at 2% and only after the first year, it's certainly positive that an offer was at least made.

In his soft defense of the deal in Friday's L.A. Times, DGA president Michael Apted notes that it's too early to determine when "those riches will be tapped" from the Internet "gold mine." Hint: they are being tapped now. Vendors making their living from such things would burst into laughter at the Consumer Electronics Show when told the AMPTP corporations wanted three years to study if there was a profit in New Media. Further, the biggest New Media profit center of all is meta data - selling embedded information about users. It's what allowed Google to become a multi-billion dollar phenomenon, while giving away its free products. Income from meta data likely tops that of the content.

AMPTP corporations like to insist there's no profit in the Internet. They also insist there's no profit in movies and TV. It's shocking that any of them are still in business. There's a profit in the Internet. New Media is mature. Income from meta data is huge. Paramount just signed a deal for $500 million with Microsoft. Writers should go to the table armed with the understanding that that "gold mine" is being tapped.

For all that's excellent and problematic in the deal, the biggest question is why the DGA negotiators felt compelled to rush this deal now? Their contract isn't up for almost half a year. Did Gil Cates want to save the Oscars that badly? It's hard to figure that this is the best deal they thought they could get this early.

While there is pressure on the WGA to settle the strike, there is pressure, too, on the AMPTP corporations to settle. The end of February is a major deadline for the billion-dollar ad "give backs," the loss of next TV season, the loss of next year's movie slate, the $100 million loss of the Oscars and more.

So, is this the basis of a good deal for the Writers Guild?

The DGA offer remains subject to analysis once the full numbers are made known. From the press release, there appear enough good and encouraging points that are highly-worth negotiating towards a settlement, and that's wonderful. But as a final offer for writers? No, there are serious problems in the release that need to be addressed.

Additionally, many writers would like to see DVDs back on the table. (The AMPTP, after all, did raise the rate for downloads.) And the famous "six issues" - important to writers, but not the DGA - should be dealt with properly: if the AMPTP corporations don't want to give Reality writers health care and overtime for 90+ hour workweeks, for instance, so be it, but they should offer something in return for the WGA taking such human decency issues off the table.

(Keep in mind, too, all WGA analysis precludes the question how SAG reacts to the deal. Some of those "six issues" were of importance to SAG, as well. A WGA member willing to toss some important issues to finally end the work stoppage could find a more-militant SAG voting down a similar offer, in which case the work stoppage will continue. Indeed, as Mr. Apted acknowledges, the DGA had both the WGA and SAG in mind when settling its deal. Writers would seemingly be wise to at least keep an eye equally-open, especially towards friends.)

Mostly, though, it's important that there was a DGA settlement, period. This allows the proper process of dealing with the strike to finally (hopefully) move forward. What exists is only an offer to the non-striking Directors Guild. There are certainly enough positives in the DGA offer that create a starting point for writers, with their very-different concerns. There is also far too much that must be addressed. But (hopefully) it will. And now that the AMPTP corporations are at last willing to discuss whether to discuss, that's the best thing of all.

(Only one thing raises unknown caution about the offer - that the DGA has not immediately sent a copy to the Writers Guild. This suggests they don't want it studied.)

In the end, anyone moping that this is a sell-out, with nothing good, that's hyperbole. Anyone dancing on rooftops that this is a great deal for writers, with nothing bad, that's hyperbole and just as harmful. Especially since we don't even know the deal yet. It appears to be a good, worthy start. But - it's just a start. Now, the negotiations begin.

And it all could have been offered a month ago.