Sharp differences surfaced among members of the Writers Guild of America in a meeting Wednesday evening over whether to strike the major film and television producers March 1.
Some of the 700 union members attending the meeting at the Hollywood Palladium expressed fears that a strike could prove as bitter and lengthy as the 40-week walkout in 1981. That strike crippled both film and TV production, and threatened the economic well-being of many of the union's 7,000 members.
Guild officials characterized the current negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for a new three-year contract as "friendly but fruitless." The negotiations began Jan. 8 at alliance headquarters in Sherman Oaks and are expected to continue up to the expiration of the current contract at midnight Feb. 28.
But Executive Director Naomi Gurian said at a press conference after the gathering that guild negotiators remain "guardedly optimistic" that a settlement can be reached. Despite the presence at the meeting of an anti-strike faction calling itself Union Blues, Gurian insisted that the membership remains united behind the union's leadership.
The press conference marked the first public pronouncements on the status of the negotiations since their inception and broke a self-imposed press blackout on the talks. Alliance President Nicholas J. Counter III said Thursday, "We're abiding by our commitment not to discuss the negotiations with the press."
Although there are 250 guild proposals on the bargaining table, most of the attention has centered on the issue of royalties from the sale of pre-recorded videocassettes of movies and TV programs. The writers are insisting that their share come from the total wholesale revenues of the cassette sales, and not just the producers' share of the money.
A similar dispute brought the Directors Guild of America to the brink of a strike last July, but a last-minute settlement averted a walkout. The directors accepted a deal on the videocassettes that gives them 1.5% of the producers' share from cassettes sales on the first $1 million in revenues and 1.8% after that.
"We feel that is not a good enough deal," Gurian said Wednesday. "The deal that the DGA felt was satisfactory is not satisfactory to us. We won't take a nose-dive compromise."
Sources among the major movie studios indicate, however, that the alliance is unwilling to give the writers a better deal on the cassette issue than it gave the directors.
Edward Anhalt, the writer of such movies as "Beckett" and the upcoming TV miniseries "Peter the Great," typified many of those present at Wednesday's meeting uneasy at the prospect of a strike.
"We will never better the directors' agreement because they can stop the cameras and we can't," Anhalt said. "I have as much if not more to gain from the cassette issue as anyone else, but I don't ever think I'll see 25 cents if this guild pursues the line it's pursuing. I don't think we can ever get what the directors couldn't get."
Other writers expressed a willingness to stand behind the guild's negotiators. "Most of us are bread-and-butter writers who need to work every day to survive," said Paula Morgan, a television writer. "But if our union strikes, we are all behind it 100%."
Anhalt and Lionel Chetwynd (the "Sadat" miniseries) were two members of the Union Blues Group, which also includes screenwriters Neal Marshall ("The Flamingo Kid") and Mike Marvin ("Hot Dog--The Movie"). In a leaflet handed out Wednesday evening along with plain blue buttons, the group stated: "In order to be sure that our views are fully appreciated by the union, we are banding together as a legitimate lobby to ask our leadership to 'Bring Us Back a Deal!' "
Chetwynd said Thursday that he and other members of the group "support the negotiating committee 100% on all the economic issues" being discussed with the alliance.
Gurian said that the negotiations will continue in earnest. But, she cautioned, "If there is no change (in the alliance's position), there will be a strike."
A screenwriter responsible for two of last year's major movie releases agreed with that assessment as he exited the meeting Wednesday. "I'm not a betting man," he said, "but I bet we're going to end up striking unless management changes its tune."