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Tentative Accord in Writers Strike
Hollywood producers and writers reached a tentative agreement Wednesday to end a crippling 150-day strike by the Writers Guild of America, one of the longest in film industry history.
The breakthrough came in an all-night bargaining session engineered by entertainment lawyer Kenneth Ziffren. The 15 hours of talks resolved a seemingly intractable dispute over residuals to writers for programs sold overseas, which had blocked repeated settlement efforts.
Negotiators for the two sides announced the agreement at about 4:45 p.m. in the company of a federal mediator. The guild's board approved the deal in a 25-to-6 vote with one abstention, and scheduled membership ratification votes Sunday in Los Angeles and New York.
The Los Angeles meeting is set for 11 a.m. at the Hollywood Palladium. The strike against more than 200 movie and television producers, including all the major studios and networks, could end as early as Monday if the pact is approved.
The paralyzing walkout forced layoffs at many studios and brought financial hardship on thousands of other workers. The economic casualties ranged from production personnel whose shows were sidelined to restaurants with heavy industry trade to typing services used by screenwriters.
The networks have pushed back the debut of the new television season to October or later, and production on some motion pictures has been delayed.
Brian Walton, chief guild negotiator, said the contract was "enormously" better than one producers offered just before the strike began March 7, and "significantly" better than a June 16 offer that was overwhelmingly rejected by union members. At a press conference, Walton said he expects members to feel "some disappointment" with the deal following their long strike. But in a telephone conversation immediately afterward, he said: "There were a lot of human reasons in the negotiators' decision (to settle). . . . The time was right to make a deal."
In a crucial point in the agreement, writers agreed to a new formula for calculating payments, called residuals, they receive when reruns of one-hour television programs are sold for syndication in the United States. The new formula, based on a percentage of sales, reflects a decline in the syndication market for one-hour shows. But in exchange, the writers won the right at some future point in the four-year contract to submit to binding arbitration a request for a return to the existing fixed-payment residual formula if the syndication market improves.
Under the current system, the writer's residual for a one-hour show is about $16,000. Under the new system, it could be as low as half that for a show with weak syndication sales, or 50% more for a hit.
Right to Choose
On residuals for shows sold to foreign countries, an expanding market, writers won the right to choose during the contract life between the current system, which pays a maximum of about $4,400 for a one-hour show, or a new formula that would pay 1.2% of the producers' foreign sales of a program, as long as that is not less than 85% of the current residual, or more than 130% of that figure.
According to Walton, the agreement also calls for increases in minimum pay of 5% in the first 18 months, 5% in the next 18 months and 4.5% in the fourth year of the contract. It also includes provisions making it easier for writers to reacquire scripts if a studio does not actually produce them, and the guild's first agreement covering shows produced for basic cable services such as the Arts & Entertainment and USA networks.
Under a letter of settlement attached to the contract, the guild will drop an anti-trust suit filed against the studios and networks during the strike. Walton said the producers in recent bargaining dropped a previous demand that the guild provide amnesty to any writer who violated strike rules by working for studios during the walkout.
In announcing the settlement at a brief press conference, J. Nicholas Counter III, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, avoided any claim of victory. "No one wins a strike," said Counter.
Given past support for union leaders, it appeared likely that members would approve the contract.
"If the leadership is recommending acceptance, I'm confident that I will go along with it. People are tired of being out," said writer-producer Robert Eisele ("The Equalizer"), considered among the most vocal supporters during the strike.
Although the guild membership mostly showed impressive support for leaders throughout the strike, there was some intense discord. A small corps of dissident writers threatened to break away and return to work as early as this week. The long walkout also strained relations between the writers guild and the Directors Guild of America, as each union accused the other of making conflicting claims upon the production companies.
As the strike wore on, about 150 smaller production companies--including those that produce NBC's "The Tonight Show" and "The Cosby Show"--signed interim contracts with the guild. But no major alliance company broke ranks, dashing union hopes that the producers could be split.
Instead, major studios announced that they would produce programs with non-union writers, scripts written overseas and by reshooting old scripts with news actors. For example, ABC said it would revive the television program "Mission Impossible" by filming the shows in Australia using teleplays written when the show was first aired in the 1960s and 1970s. The networks also asserted they could fill air time with more news programs, which were unaffected by the strike, and shows that needed no scripts, such as variety program.
It was unclear Wednesday whether the studios and networks would proceed with any of these plans.
No Quick Relief
Regardless, the end of the strike, which began March 7, will not bring immediate economic relief to all of the workers it has sidelined. Industry executives said it will be four to eight weeks before prime-time TV shows will return to production as they wait for scripts to be written.
CBS Entertainment President Kim LeMasters said Wednesday that prime time series scheduled to resume in September will not return to the air until the third week in October at the earliest. ABC Entertainment President Brandon Stoddard has said his network is looking to November for its series premieres.
"It will be weird for a few weeks. There will be such a rush to the marketplace, such an overabundance of material, that it will confuse the studios," said Martin Bauer of the Bauer, Benedeck Agency, which represents writers, producers and actors.
It appears that lawyer Ziffren succeeded as peacemaker where others--including federal mediator Floyd Wood and agent Michael Ovitz of Creative Artists Agency--did not. According to several sources familiar with the effort, the guild on Sunday asked Ziffren to help re-establish contact with the producers after the collapse of federally mediated negotiations early Saturday.
The failure of the federal mediation effort seemed the nadir of the strike, and prompted predictions of increased rancor. But it actually sparked renewed pressures on both sides to find a settlement.
It triggered efforts within the guild membership to force a membership meeting and a new vote on the producers' latest contract offer. A June 16 offer from the producers was rejected June 22 by a 75% margin of those guild members voting.
"There were personal phone calls, calls to the 'warm line,' messages on the (guild's computerized) bulletin board, from people wanting to get this thing resolved," said one guild negotiator. "The trend was, 'As long as you're talking, it's OK. If you break off, we want a vote.' "
The producers, despite their vow that negotiations were over, also proved receptive to renewed talks. In a crucial session Sunday night, Ziffren conferred by telephone with three studio executives--Fox Inc.'s Barry Diller, MCA Inc.'s Sidney Sheinberg and Walt Disney Pictures' Jeffrey Katzenberg--as the executives met with Counter at Sheinberg's home in Beverly Hills.
According to sources on both sides, the executives at that meeting laid down the parameters for resumed bargaining.
One key element in resumption of talks--according to sources on both sides--was union acceptance of management's 1.2% formula for computing the revised foreign residual on one-hour TV shows rather than the guild's proposed 1.8%. However, other elements in the formula, for instance the minimum payment, remained open to discussion.
The studio chiefs also insisted on including the basic cable terms in the contract. The guild had initially wanted such an agreement, but pulled back when they saw company proposals, arguing that it would be better to negotiate over such shows case by case.
Monday, Ziffren--working with Walton and the guild's East Coast director, Mona Mangan--drafted a document laying out specific guild expectations for the renewed session, which began at about 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.
The talks included Counter, Walton, Ziffren, about a dozen writers, and a small number of company negotiators.
Times staff writers Diane Haithman, Lee Margulies, Paul Rosenfield, Tammy Sims and Paul Vargas contributed to this story.