Movie and television writers began casting their ballots Sunday on whether to end their 3-month-old strike, a vote that is likely to send the entertainment industry back to work Wednesday.
The action followed Sunday's unanimous decision by the board and negotiating committee of the Writers Guild of America to bless a tentative contract reached with studios over the weekend. The guild's 10,500 movie and TV writers are expected to ratify the new three-year agreement within 12 days.
Top show runners, however, were given the green light by the guild to return to work today in their capacity as producers, which means they can hire crews and prepare their series to go before the cameras.
Shawn Ryan, show runner of "The Shield" and "The Unit," literally couldn't wait to go back to work. He spent Sunday night viewing cuts from the pilot of "The Oaks," of which he is executive producer, and the last four episodes of "The Shield," which will begin its final season later this year.
"It's really unusual," Ryan said. "I've kind of gotten used to not working. Honestly, I'm very happy that we were able to strike a deal that was fair and was amenable to our side and their side, and that we all get to go back and do the work that we love."
The strike shut down more than 60 shows, idled thousands of production workers and squeezed scores of local businesses that rely heavily upon the entertainment industry for their livelihoods.
News of the approaching end to the work stoppage brought a collective sigh of relief across the region.
"It's thrilling news that the strike may be over," said Harvey Schwartz, founder of North Hollywood-based 20th Century Props, who estimated that his business lost $250,000 and laid off a dozen employees because of the strike. "I might be able to keep my present employees and even hire back some."
Added Michael Page, manager of Mo's restaurant on Riverside Drive in Burbank: "We're definitely grateful that the strike is over. We're right down the street from the studios, so it certainly impacted us."
Crew members were also elated. "We just want to get back to work," said Deborah Huss Humphries, a makeup artist. "I've missed working."
The resolution comes in the nick of time to save the Feb. 24 telecast of the Academy Awards, which now can happen without the threat of picketers outside the event, a paucity of stars on the red carpet and the absence of writers to pen jokes for the presenters. It also means the networks will finally be able to begin developing new shows for next season.
At a news conference Sunday at the Writers Guild of America, West headquarters in the Fairfax district, guild leaders touted their new contract as a landmark agreement that demonstrated the union's newfound clout and secured for writers a foothold in the emerging world of online entertainment.
"This is the best deal the guild has bargained for in 30 years," said Patric M. Verrone, president of the West Coast guild. "It's not all we hoped for, and it's not all we deserve, but . . . this deal assures for us and for future generations a share in the future."
The agreement doubles the rate that writers are paid for movie and TV shows sold online, establishes the union's jurisdiction over programming created for the Internet and for the first time provides payment for entertainment that is streamed on websites.
It was modeled after a similar agreement that studios struck with directors last month.
"We spent nearly three months with the [studio] labor executives getting nowhere," Verrone said. The executives' involvement "was instrumental in making this deal happen."
Verrone also tipped his hat to a show of solidarity from other unions, especially the Screen Actors Guild, whose members supported writers in boycotting the Golden Globes last month. Actors are poised to enter their own negotiations with studios to replace a contract that expires June 30.
Many had expected that the strike would end today. But at a membership meeting at the Shrine Auditorium on Saturday night, Verrone told 3,500 writers that the board would not lift the strike until members had the opportunity to weigh in.
The board had the authority to end the strike today. But many writers felt they should first have a say in the matter, given that they had voted to authorize the strike in the first place and rigorously supported it on the picket lines.
Under guild rules, members must be given 48 hours to vote on whether to end a strike. Notices went out midday Sunday informing writers that they could cast ballots in person Tuesday at polling locations on both coasts. Members unable to vote in person were allowed to send proxy ballots by fax beginning Sunday. Results will be announced Tuesday night.
A settlement would also be welcomed by TV viewers, who are eager to see some of their favorite shows return to the air with fresh episodes and are hoping midseason shows such as "Lost" will have complete runs.
But first the producers and writers have their work cut out for them.
Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the show runners of "Lost," will today begin the complicated task of figuring out what they should do with the second half of their season. When the strike began, eight episodes of the fourth season had been completed, and the producers don't know how many new episodes ABC will want to air before the TV season ends in the spring.
"We have to look at all the notes that were taken right before we left in terms of what we're going to do creatively for the remainder of the season and refresh our memory a little," Lindelof said. "I feel like we're sort of native French speakers who have been away from the country for three months and we're going back to France tomorrow and our diction is going to be a little sloppy."