UPDATE, 10:15 p.m. – Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and major studios are expected to return to the bargaining table Sunday for a rare weekend session as the sides try to head off a strike that could begin as early as May 2.
Negotiators for the companies will meet with executives on Saturday before sitting down Sunday for a bargaining seesion with the WGA.
The contract wrangling is expected to go down to the wire on Monday night when the current contract expires. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and WGA have been in talks since Tuesday, but there’s speculation that both sides are watching the clock and holding back on their final moves until Monday.
One source said that as of Friday evening the AMPTP was still awaiting a formal response from the WGA on key points in the talks, including residual rates and script fees for SVOD programs and the “span” issue involving adjustments in compensation for short-order series that has been a central concern in the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the studios have started prepping their employees for the possibility of the first strike in nearly a decade. The WGA, which has some of the same leaders in place, stayed out for 100 days between Nov. 5, 2007, and Feb. 12, 2008, and staged hundreds of demonstrations before a deal was reached.
The current contract expires at 12:01 a.m. PT on Tuesday, so picketers could hit the entrances studio that morning. Warner Bros., Universal, Fox, and Sony Pictures each sent memos to staffers of that possibility on Friday along with how to deal with some of the contingencies that may emerge.
The possibility of a strike was viewed as something of a long shot by many until April 24, when the WGA announced it garnered a 96.3% backing from its members for a strike authorization with a total of 6,310 ballots cast and 67.5% of eligible voters participating. Attorney Ivy Kagan Bierman, a partner at Loeb and Loeb, told Variety that she was surprised by the high level of support.
“Many of the writers I talk with do not want to strike because there was so much economic damage in the last strike,” she said. “I don’t think a strike is a good idea at this point.”
The AMPTP last commented publicly on April 24 in reaction to the strike authorization vote, saying, “The companies are committed to reaching a deal at the bargaining table that keeps the industry working. The 2007 Writers Strike hurt everyone. Writers lost more than $287 million in compensation that was never recovered, deals were cancelled, and many writers took out strike loans to make ends meet.”
Since then, the two sides have met for four days of bargaining without public comment until Friday afternoon, when the WGA announced it had estimated that the guild’s proposals would cost the AMPTP members $156 million annually in increased payments to writers. “The cost of settling is reasonable,” the guild said.
It also estimated that the combined annual costs to the six major companies — CBS ($14.02 million), Disney ($18.57 million), Fox ($22.3 million), NBC ($15.68 million), Sony ($11.21 million) and Time Warner ($24.01 million) — would be $103 million and repeated its calculation that those six companies generated $51 billion in operating profits in 2016. The additional estimated costs include $8.58 million for Viacom and $41.83 million for “smaller companies,” which it said includes Netflix, Amazon, Lionsgate, AMC and hundreds of others.
Studio sources disputed those figures as “conservative.” The AMPTP members also have to consider the cost of comparable gains that will be sought by other unions. Several sources said Friday that SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP have scheduled mid-May as start for their negotiations on a new master contract to replace the current three-year deal, which expires June 30. The union and the AMPTP had no comment.