A month into negotiations toward a new three-year contract, Hollywood writers and producers seem determined to avoid the sort of confrontational bargaining that has become something of an entertainment industry routine lately.
Movie and TV companies are looking for what they say are badly needed economic concessions from the Writers Guild of America. But the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers hasn't mounted the kind of across-the-board assault on residual payments that led to an angry, if brief, strike by the Directors Guild of America last summer.
This time, producers particularly want to scale back writers' residuals for one-hour TV shows, which are costly to make and haven't been selling well in a soft syndication market.
The writers claim, however, that the entertainment companies are doing just fine. The guild members want a bigger share of growing profits from foreign sales of U.S. movies and TV shows, among other things.
But union leaders are bending over backwards to avert a replay of 1985, when internal strife split the guild during a two-week strike that ended with what many writers believed was a major concession to the companies on hotly disputed videocassette residuals. The settlement raised the percentage of videocassette sales paid to writers as residuals, but calculated the payments on a much smaller base than writers contended they were entitled to under the old contract.
"The guild has gone through a great healing process. I think there's a general realization that we had self-destructed in 1985," said David Rintels, a writer-producer who helped negotiate an agreement three years ago, and then dramatically recommended its rejection during a mass meeting at the Hollywood Palladium.
"When the debate is taking place in the midst of hysteria, you can't communicate effectively," said Brian Walton, a 40-year-old, London-born lawyer who became executive director of the WGA's 6,500-member western division in a leadership shake-up that followed the 1985 strike. "I think we've come to realize that you can't put people in a (big arena) and attempt to communicate complex material and ideas."
Walton, who is the guild's chief negotiator, spent much of the last three years meeting some 1,500 writers in so-called "outreach" sessions that were intended to defuse tensions and help guild members figure out what they really want from their master contract with the studios.
According to some veterans of the 1985 negotiation, during which an anti-strike faction called the Union Blues traded angry charges with guild militants, the outreach sessions significantly reduced the guild's volatility--and perhaps the likelihood of a strike this time around.
Roughly 9,000 movie and television writers are covered by the guild's three-year contract with the producers. About 700 news writers and others are covered by separate guild contracts with the TV networks. Writers guild members struck ABC and CBS last year.
Apparently, negotiators for the major studios and other producers are also a little cooler than they were in facing the directors' guild last June.
Back then, the companies called on the directors to forsake residuals--payments triggered when TV shows or movies are shown as reruns or put on cable-TV and videocassettes--until after films were safely in profit.
The directors balked, maintaining that producers were reaping record profits, and then hiding them with the magic of studio accounting. The producers eventually softened their demands, but an agreement was reached only after a director's strike that lasted several hours in New York and a few minutes in Los Angeles.
"We've narrowed our scope," J. Nicholas Counter III, chief negotiator for the alliance, said of demands put before the writers in bargaining sessions that began Dec. 16. "We're focusing on the areas where we really need help."
In addition to asking writers to restructure residuals on hourlong TV shows--in keeping with a formula accepted by the directors last summer--the companies have proposed cost-saving changes in contractual definitions of low-budget productions and in other areas.
Pointing out that hourlong shows accounted for fully 30% of the writers' $51.1 million in 1986 residuals, Walton calls the restructuring proposal one of several company launched "strategic missiles" that could lead to serious trouble in the talks, despite the generally calmer atmosphere.
While neither side is predicting a writers strike, Counter agrees that trouble is still possible--particularly if the writers don't modify their own demands.
"It's pretty early to tell," said Counter. "But if they were to dig in their heels on their (bargaining) program, we could still have a real problem."