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WGA Strike Update

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By Jack Egan
The mood in Hollywood veered between cautious optimism and anxious pessimism in the final week of November on the question of how long the strike by writers could last.
The resumption of negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers on Nov. 26 led to speculation, based mainly on rumors and wishful thinking, that a deal was at hand. But by week’s end the talks had faltered and the two sides issued dueling counter-statements about what had led to an impasse.
Nevertheless, both parties have agreed to take another stab at a settlement when talks are set to resume on Dec. 4.
AMPTP, for its part, claimed it had offered a “groundbreaking” package delivering an extra $130 million to the writers “above and beyond” the $1.3 billion the scribes already receive this year. WGA president Patric Verrone responded to what he said was “AMPTP’s intractability,” claiming that the studio offer amounted to a rollback. It was inadequate because the studios “continued to refuse to grant jurisdiction over original content for the Internet.”
A key demand from the writers has been for an increased share of residuals for what they’ve written when it gets downloaded or streamed on new technological platforms like the web or cell phones.
Hopes remain for a resolution during the round of talks that is set to start this Tuesday, due to intense backchannel pressure from top showrunners, leading agents and some studio moguls for the WGA and AMPTP to strike a deal. The conventional wisdom is still that the four-week-old strike—which is increasingly rippling through the entertainment economy not just in Los Angeles but around the world — could get settled by Christmas, if not earlier.
Some positive signs in the backdrop were two settlements last week. IATSE’s Local One, the stagehands’ union, reached an agreement with theater owners, ending a strike that had darkened much of Broadway in recent weeks. And ABC and 250 of its newswriters, also members of WGA, agreed on a new contract.
But if 2008 begins without an agreement between the WGA and AMPTP, it’s considered more likely that the strike could become open-ended, with more debilitating side-effects impacting below-the-line crews and other workers helplessly caught in the middle.
The writers’ strike in 1988, the last major labor action to shut down Hollywood, lasted 22 weeks at a financial cost of $500 million. A long strike today could inflict damage of well over $1 billion, according to some estimates.
It’s thought that a strike stretching into the new year could potentially present more problems for the WGA than the studios. The longer the strike, the more WGA’s leadership will be under pressure to deliver to its members a deal considered good enough to justify what’s being lost in a protracted walkout, which may be out of reach at that point.
Once scenario is for AMPTP to stop any negotiations with the WGA, turning instead to the directors whose contract expires next June 30. The Directors Guild of America has traditionally negotiated well before its deadline expires, and some believe a new contract agreement could conceivably be hammered out in January or February. A DGA spokeswoman said the directors’ guild had no comment on its upcoming contract renewal or on the continuing writers strike.
If indeed the DGA and AMPTP can cut an early deal, the WGA could get outflanked. The settlement by directors has in the past been a template for agreements between AMPTP and both the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild. (SAG’s own three-year contract is up for renewal by the middle of 2008.) In that event, the studios will be reluctant to reward the striking writers’ union with a deal that’s richer than that of the DGA, which is willing to settle without walking out.
Another factor: The zeal and enthusiasm of WGA members on the picket lines could also diminish after the holidays if fewer celebrities show up to lend their support. The writers, according to most observers, have done a better public relations job than the studios. But public interest will soon get diverted by holiday festivities, football bowls and the start of voting in the rapid succession of presidential primaries that starts Jan. 3 when Iowans caucus.
So far it’s business as usual for what is normally the main event in tinsel town this time of year — kudos campaigns for films as awards season looms. “There hasn’t been any letup in what I’m doing,” says veteran public relations executive Murray Weissman, who has worked on numerous Oscar campaigns. But one of the best promotional outlets has disappeared as highly sought appearances on popular late-night television talk fests are no longer available. Shows like those hosted by David Letterman and Jay Leno have gone into reruns because of the writers strike.

Written by Jack Egan

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