Writers Close to Clinching New Contract

Barring a last-minute glitch, Hollywood studios and writers are expected to sign off on a new three-year contract today that would head off a potentially disastrous strike, according to sources close to both parties.

After more than 100 hours of bargaining over the last two weeks, the two sides were described by several knowledgeable sources as nearly finished drafting contract language and finessing deal points.

In addition, representatives of film and TV directors are expected today to review a revised package of so-called creative issues negotiated by studios and screenwriters.

At the end of a tense day when an announcement appeared imminent, exhausted negotiators instead recessed, leaving the Writers Guild of America's Los Angeles headquarters around 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Smaller groups continued to work into the night negotiating specific items and tweaking language.

The full negotiating committee plans to return to the bargaining table at 10 a.m. today.

Thursday was the first day this week that negotiations did not drag on late into the night, a further indication that most of the time-consuming work had been finished, the sources said.

In a midafternoon phone call, WGA leader John Wells and studio negotiator J. Nicholas Counter assured Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan that a deal was near. Riordan, who was vacationing in Acapulco, has been publicly pressuring both sides to settle.

One executive involved in negotiating the creative rights said studio chiefs were asked to be on call Friday for an "across-the-table handshake" once a deal is consummated.

Some concessions writers are expected to win include eliminating a discount the Fox network currently pays writers in the third year of the contract.

Industry sources also said they expect writers to get an unspecified, last-minute sweetener that would help sell rank-and-file members on an agreement.

According to one source who was briefed late Thursday, writers are expected to receive 3.5% increases in an array of minimum payments as well as compensation for one-time showing of movies on developing video-on-demand systems. Negotiators put off dealing with what they will receive when the technology advances to the point where consumers can download movies via the Internet or broadband systems.

Any deal will have to be ratified by the guild's 11,500 members.

Some concessions also are expected in the area of creative rights, which involve screenwriter complaints that they aren't included enough in the filmmaking process and that studios too liberally award "A film by" credits to directors.

Momentum in the negotiations has continued this week even after the writers' contract expired at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. Sessions this week have gone as late as 2:45 a.m. as the two sides continued testing each other's resolve and pushing last-minute points.

Bargaining has taken place on the second and third floors of the four-story building across from the Farmers Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, with scores of reporters and camera crews camped out in a converted bank office.

The news blackout by negotiators has prompted some desperate television reporters to go to some unusual heights to spy on the action. Several of the television news crews mounted cameras on top of their satellite dishes or booms on their trucks parked along Fairfax. The camera operators then trained their lenses on the meeting rooms like submarine periscopes.

One television crew snagged some footage of negotiators eating dinner. A WGA assistant was surprised to see herself on TV as she paced in a room. So now WGA officials are drawing the blinds in the rooms after dark to continue their strict news blackout.

Even with the guild and the industry's Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers making progress all week, Thursday's session still vacillated between optimism that a deal was imminent and fears it all could unravel over money.

Veterans of past Hollywood labor negotiations said such eleventh-hour tensions are common.

"Classically, a few tough issues get saved for the end, and everybody has a view on how to resolve them," said former MCA Inc. President Sidney Sheinberg. "I'm just speculating, but there possibly could be a lot of tension in the room, and it's not as pleasant as you thought it was going to be."

Complaining they've been shortchanged for years as the global entertainment industry exploded with lucrative new distribution outlets and technologies, writers were looking for a bigger chunk of the revenue, especially when the work runs on cable TV, in foreign markets and on videocassette and DVD. Studios argued that although revenue increased, soaring costs of making and marketing films and TV shows caused their profit margins to shrink.

A settlement with writers would significantly defuse the likelihood of a strike this summer by actors, who enter negotiations with studios this month to replace a contract that runs through June. Under longtime Hollywood labor practices, one guild's agreement often serves as a model for similar deals with other guilds and unions.

So widespread were the industry's fears of unprecedented back-to-back strikes by writers and screen actors that studios began preparing nearly a year ago. As late as March, strikes were seen as a virtual fait accompli after writers and studios bitterly broke off talks.

But that sentiment turned, largely because of a softening economy, thousands of job cuts by such entertainment giants as Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner and intense pressures put on both sides by other labor unions and Riordan.

A successful writers contract also would ease fears that Los Angeles could be pummeled by an entertainment work stoppage. Strikes by writers and actors would have crippled the next television season, shut down film and TV production and cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $500 million a week in direct and indirect costs.