Looking to avoid a repeat of 1988's bitter strike, Writers Guild of America representatives and Hollywood producers have scripted a tentative contract agreement nine months before their current pact expires.

The preliminary contract was approved in mid-August by the guild's board, but is subject to a general membership vote on Sept. 18. It includes a 3 percent cost-of-living pay increase and allows writers who sell "spec" scripts those bought on the speculation that they will be produced, but without an actual production deal in hand to receive pension and health benefits. Currently, only scribes who were hired to rewrite a spec screenplay receive these benefits.

This is the first time guild members (who are mostly film and TV writers) and producers have come to an agreement so early in the process.

"Writers are artists and we are in negotiations with people whose art is negotiating ... the earlier that we get started, the better," said Linda Palmer, a screenwriter for television and a guild member since 1976.

Only one of the guild's 19 board members, Lynn Roth who is running for president of the Writers Guild of America West voted against the early agreement. The guild and producers have been bargaining on the contract since June.

Despite the board's near-unanimous approval of the contract, there is considerable disagreement over the issue of foreign-market residuals, which could lead to the rejection of the pact when it comes to a vote of rank-and-file members.

The foreign-market residuals provision was written in the 1960s, when there was far less demand for American films and TV shows overseas than there is today. It states that writers will get no more than three payment installments for their work when it is sold overseas, and none of the payments will exceed $10,000.

"Now films go in five times the number of territories, with a longer life," said Charles Slocum, director of special projects at the WGA, who participated in the summer discussions. "The (three-payment minimum) has not been extended, while revenues have gone up by many multiples. That's the bigger issue in terms of the contract."

Asked why a new residual agreement wasn't included in the upcoming contract, Slocum said, "It will be very difficult to deal with this in a very brinkmanship manner. (Guild representatives) agreed not to deal with it this summer."

Instead, Slocum said, guild members and producers will discuss the issue for the next two years, and if the preliminary contract is approved, it may become a bargaining point when the agreement expires in 2001.

Another concern among some guild members is that the early negotiations might weaken the union's position, said Slocum. But while the threat of a strike at times works to a union's advantage, neither side wants to go through one again particularly after the last one.

"It was absolutely devastating for many people," said Palmer. "Though we've had some significant gains since then, we've had to suffer for those gains."

To avoid a repeat of the five-month Writers Guild strike in 1988, one of the longest in the history of the industry, the guild introduced "fast track" negotiations this year.

Producers and the guild also formed a special Contract Adjustment Committee made up of about 40 guild and studio representatives that was created to avoid some of the problems that cropped up nine years ago. At that time, said Slocum, the process of selecting negotiators was disorganized and the two sides didn't even come to the bargaining table until the contract had nearly expired.

Despite the failure of guild negotiators to win concessions on foreign-market residuals, writers have made significant strides in negotiating their personal contracts with production companies in recent years.

The guild's 4,000 working writers reported earnings of $652 million in 1996. In 1988, when the guild had only 3,500 working writers, they reported earnings of only $254 million, according to guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden.

There was also a 12 percent increase in writer salaries from 1995 to 1996, marking two years of double-digit growth, according to Rhoden.

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