Strike looms over Hollywood, foreshadowing this summer’s films

Talks this week between screenwriters and producers could signal whether Hollywood faces a full-blown strike this summer. Two weeks of negotiations were scheduled to begin Monday between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which represents major studios and independent companies.

The WGA contract expires May 1. Contracts for the Screen Actors Guild (news – web sites) and the American Federation of Radio & Television Artists – which represent 135, 000 actors – expire two months later, and the Directors Guild of America agreement
ends in July 2002. A walkout by any of the guilds could disrupt the fall television season and stall movie production. The loss to the industry and Los Angeles County businesses that rely on it could reach $457 million a week, according to the county Economic Development Corporation.

“Suddenly we are at the precipice,” Monday’s edition of Variety warned – the first time the trade paper has put an editorial on its front page in its 86-year history. “Clearly this is a moment for compromise, rather than posturing,” wrote editor-in-chief Peter Bart. He blasted the “macho mandates” of writers and management’s “shrill cries of poverty.”

The possibility of a strike was on everyone’s mind Sunday as the Golden Globes were handed out in Beverly Hills. “More than likely, there will be an actors” strike. That’s the way we’re heading,“ actor George Clooney said backstage. But a different assessment came from John Wells, president of the Writers Guild of America’s West Coast branch and executive producer of TV’s ”The West Wing“ and ”ER.“ ”There are a lot of hopeful signs,“ he told reporters. He added that ”everyone’s serious“ about working to reach an agreement.

Tough talk by the unions and last year’s rancorous six-month walkout by TV and radio commercial actors are fueling strike fears. Asked at a recent news conference if there will be a walkout, 20th Century Fox Television President Dana Walden replied: ”Unfortunately, yes.“ But WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden dismissed the strike talk as ”hype whipping itself into a frenzy.“ ”We are very hopeful,“ Rhoden said Friday. ”At the same time, we enter negotiations with the sense that there are issues that will not be easy to negotiate. The companies have resisted change in these areas for a very long time.“

The WGA is seeking changes in residual payment formulas for cable programs, for the reuse of TV shows and movies on videocassettes and DVDs, and for shows distributed overseas. Writers currently receive 4 cents for every VHS tape or DVD produced, a figure set when videotapes were introduced and production costs were high. The WGA wants an additional 4 cents per tape or disc. ”It’s time to share that with the artist,“ Rhoden said. Studio executives have claimed that the WGA proposals, if applied to the upcoming actors” and directors“ contracts, would cost up to $2.4 billion over three years. The WGA disputes that, saying the three-year cost for all the guilds would amount to a cumulative $725 million. More than money is at stake for the 11,000 guild writers. They are butting heads with directors as well as studios in demanding ”creative rights“ that would give them more power during production.

The WGA also is seeking elimination of the so-called possessory credit for film directors, the ”A film by …“ designation that writers contend minimizes their importance to a project. Nick Counter, president of the producers” alliance, was guarded about immediate prospects for a deal. “We’re a bit concerned about the short time frame that’s been established by the guild,” Counter said last week. “But the fact that we’re commencing negotiations at this time is positive.” Rhoden called the two-week window more than ample.

Creative rights issues have been under discussion with studio chief executive officers for more than two years, while the companies have had the guild’s economic proposals since September, she said.

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