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New Plot Twists in the Writers’ Strike : ‘Secret Pact’ Stirs Up a New Dispute

Times Staff Writer

Are Hollywood’s directors stabbing the striking writers in the back?

After simmering on the gossip circuit for weeks, that question exploded at 4:50 p.m. Wednesday afternoon.

That’s when the Associated Press moved a story reporting that Barry Diller, chairman of Fox Inc., had privately told a group of screenwriters that a “secret pact” between producers and the Directors Guild of America prevented the studios from giving more residuals to writers and thus ending their 19 1/2-week-old strike.

Under a supposed “gentleman’s agreement” between directors and producers during the DGA’s negotiations last year, the story said, the companies had pledged not to pay any other Hollywood union more money for television reruns than what the directors got.

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Juicy stuff, the notion of one guild making a deal that secretly undercut another. But did it really happen that way?

According to the AP story, two writers, both of whom were among about 40 writers at a Tuesday informational meeting conducted by studio executives on the Fox lot, say that it did. Producers, preparing to launch shows with or without striking guild members, have been asking individual writers to hear their version of strike issues.

The writers weren’t identified in the story. But seven writers who attended the meeting later gave a report to chief guild negotiator Brian Walton, and one of them Thursday reaffirmed the notion of a producer-director agreement.

Speaking on the condition that he not be identified, the writer recalled Diller as having spoken explicitly of a “promise” not to “embarrass” DGA leaders by giving more residuals to another guild.

“We can’t embarrass them because of the promise,” the studio chief supposedly said--provoking expressions of outrage from writers’ guild leaders, who claim the alleged “agreement” did much to explain why negotiations have been deadlocked.

Others, however, told a different story.

To begin with, an incensed Diller dismissed the whole affair as an “absurdity.”

Reached by telephone shortly after the wire story moved, the Fox chief said: “If there were a secret pact, to reveal it to a group of writers in an open meeting, I’d have to be a lot dumber than I am on my dumbest day.”

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What he did say, Diller claimed, is that the producers had told the directors a year ago that they could only afford to pay so much on residuals, and they didn’t intend to get “out of sync” with that position now by paying the writers more.

Scarcely less incensed, Glenn Gumpel, national executive director of the directors’ guild and a principal architect of that union’s 1987 settlement, said there was no producer-director agreement to block the writers. “Absolutely not. . . . It’s a fantasy,” Gumpel said.

Gil Cates, who was president of the DGA during last year’s negotiations, said the same. “There was no secret pact,” he maintained.

But was there, at least, a “gentleman’s agreement”?

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“I’m absolutely unaware of it,” he replied.

At least one writer who attended the meeting upheld Diller’s account. “Diller never said there was a secret deal. That’s an incredibly cockeyed view,” said Michael Zinberg, a producer-writer who was among 21 guild dissidents who filed an unfair labor practices charge against the union last week.

Whatever the reality of this latest incident, hard feelings clearly exist between some leaders of both unions.

There is little reason to doubt that the directors have been keeping a jealous eye on the writers’ negotiations--and have occasionally made it known that they would take a dim view of any settlement that gives their striking brethren more than they got.

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Early in the strike, the directors guild publicly said it would take legal action against any producer who signed a contract granting writers certain creative rights that the directors believed were already guaranteed to them by contract. The WGA publicly said there was no contractual conflict. But the writers eventually dropped the stiffest of their creative demands, defusing that particular conflict with the sister guild.

Since then, the directors apparently have also made it known that they wouldn’t be pleased if the writers’ outdid them on the residuals front. Diller acknowledged on Wednesday that the DGA--he didn’t say how--had “reminded” producers “at various stages of what we said to them (about having no more money for residuals). ‘We took you at your word,’ (they said).”

Several weeks ago, one studio chief was more blunt. Speaking on the condition that he not be identified, he said: “The DGA leadership has said, ‘You can’t do this to us. We averted a strike only because we believed you. You’ll make us appear to be fools (if you give the writers more).’ ”

One directors’ guild source strongly maintained that the union’s only serious contact with producers has been over the creative issues. Gumpel declined to discuss any details of the union’s position, and Cates did the same, citing current DGA President Franklin Schaffner’s prohibition against speaking publicly in any way about the writers’ dispute.

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