In a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, the Writers Guild of America, the union that represents more than 10,000 writers, asserted that the studios had violated federal law by ending contract negotiations last Friday after the guild refused to meet their demand to take several proposals off the table.
Thursday's development exacerbates the hostility between the two sides and could prolong a costly strike -- now in its sixth week -- that has virtually shut down scripted television production in Los Angeles County and imperils the current and upcoming TV seasons. Since the strike began, production of more than 60 dramas and sitcoms has been halted in the county, at a cost of more than 10,000 jobs, according to one estimate.
"This is a laying down of the gauntlet in some sense," said David Smith, a labor economist at Pepperdine University. "It's a strategic move that in my mind is likely to set up further tension between the two groups."
The two sides are deeply divided over how writers should be paid when their work is distributed on the Internet.
"It is a clear violation of federal law for the [studios] to issue an ultimatum and break off negotiations if we fail to cave to their illegal demands," the Writers Guild said in a statement Thursday. "It is the height of irresponsibility and intransigence for the [studio alliance] to refuse to negotiate a fair agreement with the WGA."
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, fired back: "The WGA has now been reduced to pounding the table, and this baseless, desperate NLRB complaint is just the latest indication that the WGA's negotiating strategy has achieved nothing for working writers."
If the labor board opts to investigate the charge and file a formal complaint, it could take 45 days for a hearing to be scheduled before an administrative law judge. A ruling against the studios could prompt an appeal, potentially tying up the case for months.
"Given the fact that it's an urgent situation . . . I think we will see a ruling sooner rather than later," said UC Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, an expert on labor issues.
Guild officials and some labor experts said the maneuver could actually shorten the strike by applying pressure on the studios to return to the bargaining table sooner than they otherwise might have, given the current impasse.
The development came on the same day as the Directors Guild of America's decision to defer its own negotiations with the studios until after New Year's Day to give writers a window -- however narrow -- to make their own deal.
Writers had been urging directors to hold off their contract talks until writers negotiated a three-year contract to replace the one that expired Oct. 31.
The writers fear that the directors could undercut their contract by accepting terms, especially in the area of Internet residuals, that are less favorable than the ones they are demanding. Studios have been eager to begin talks with directors, with whom they enjoy much more cordial relations. Directors have struck only once in their union's 71-year history, for five minutes in 1987.
In deference to the writers, directors Thursday held off their own negotiations for two weeks, agreeing not to begin formal negotiations until early January instead of next week. Although their contract doesn't expire until June 30, directors have a pattern of negotiating early deals.
"We don't want to just come in and jump all over the WGA," Directors Guild President Michael Apted said. "We're a sister guild and we have the same agenda. I want to give them a reasonable amount of time to take stock of their position. . . . [and] to say you've got two weeks to sort it out."
The directors' decision comes after heavy lobbying by a group of more than 300 writer-directors, including Joel and Ethan Coen, Ed Zwick and Sean Penn, who wrote a letter to Apted and other Directors Guild leaders urging them to hold off their contract talks while writers engaged in delicate negotiations.
Apted, director of such films as "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Amazing Grace," said the unanimous decision by the Directors Guild to go in January was prompted by a sense of urgency, noting that the strike had taken a toll on many of the guild's own 13,400 members.
"In the new year, we're going in and nothing will stop us," he said.
The cost of the strike has been mounting every week, with analysts estimating a toll of as much as $21 million a day once all TV production shuts down. In the last week, permits for TV drama shoots on the streets of L.A. dropped 91% compared with a year earlier, according to FilmL.A. Inc., a nonprofit group that handles film permits. Only four shows are still shooting, and next month only one -- "October Road" -- is set to return.
The directors' decision early Thursday appeared to mark a rare display of solidarity between two unions that have a history of strained relations. Many writers are still angry with directors for accepting a discounted pay formula for home video residuals more than 20 years ago. That formula, under which writers collect about 4 cents for every DVD sold, has remained unchanged even as home entertainment has boomed.
Officials of the Writers Guild stressed Thursday that they did not want directors to set their agenda.
"We wish them well, but they do not represent writers. Our strike will end when the companies return to negotiations and make a fair deal with the WGA," the guild said in a statement.
The guild further reiterated its demand that the studio alliance "immediately return to the negotiations, rather than going on vacation, so that this town can be put back to work."
The prospects of the parties resuming talks any time soon are dim, given the heightened rancor and rhetoric that has only escalated since studios broke off negotiations. Each has accused the other of lying about its positions and what caused the breakdown.
Last Friday, studios issued an ultimatum that writers take off the table half a dozen demands that included proposals for jurisdiction over reality TV and animation writers.
Writers have refused to comply, pointing out that two of the proposals go to the core of their fight for Internet residuals. Writers complained that studios didn't satisfy their key demands, which centered on pay for film and TV shows that are streamed online, sold through services such as Apple Inc.'s iTunes Store or created for the Web.
Studio negotiators maintained that their proposals were fair and that guild leaders pursued unrealistic demands given the uncertainty of new-media revenues.
The guild's strategy continues to focus on creating as much havoc for the studios as possible. Thousands of writers are still staging pickets and protests in Los Angeles and New York.
At Paramount Studios on Thursday, about 150 writers joined the picket line on Melrose Avenue, which was filled with the sound of honking cars. Comedian Sarah Silverman came to show her support, wearing a WGA baseball cap and comparing the picket line to a fun funeral.
"I'm glad the Directors Guild is holding off," said writer Stephen Blackburn, 52. "The fact that the directors have held off shows they're in solidarity with the writers. And that can only help us."
Ric Arthur, a 38-year-old television writer and film producer, said, "If the DGA comes up with a really bogus contract, it's only going to lengthen the strike for everyone else in town."
Although a number of influential guild members have been applying pressure on their leaders to find a way to jump-start the talks and refocus negotiations on new media, most of the membership still supports the strike and the union's stewards.
"I can assure you that our union is as strong and unified as ever and stands behind our leadership," Liz Benjamin, writer-producer of the TV series "Bones," said in an e-mail Thursday.