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Writers will strike, union leaders say

Times Staff Writers

Leaders of the union representing Hollywood’s film and television scribes declared Thursday night that they would go on strike in what would be the first walkout by writers in nearly two decades.

Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America told thousands of members gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center that they would notify members of the timing of the walkout by e-mail this afternoon, according to people present at the meeting.

Although the announcement moves the entertainment industry closer to a debilitating strike, there is still an outside chance that an agreement on a new contract may be reached in the next few days.

A prolonged strike would destabilize Southern California’s signature industry and spur a domino effect across the Los Angeles economy, throwing untold numbers of people out of work. Television viewers could notice an immediate change: David Letterman’s Top 10 list on CBS, for instance, could be reprised from an earlier show.

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Thursday night’s rally of about 3,000 film and TV writers occurred a day after talks with their employers broke down amid disputes over DVD residuals and pay for programs distributed over the Internet. The writers’ employment agreement expired at midnight Wednesday.

The union’s board of directors is set to formally ratify the strike plans at a 10 a.m. meeting today at the West Coast guild’s headquarters in the Fairfax district.

Barring a last-minute deal, a strike would probably start Monday, people close to the guild said. That would mark the first time in nearly two decades that writers had walked off the job. The guild represents about 12,000 film and TV writers, of which roughly 7,000 work regularly.

At the packed Convention Center, guild leaders were greeted with multiple standing ovations and cheers by members, many of whom were clad in red T-shirts emblazoned with “United We Stand.”

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“This is a watershed negotiation for the Writers Guild,” David Young, the union’s chief negotiator, told the raucous crowd. “This is not the average negotiation. This has the potential to determine writers’ income from the Internet and new media for the next generation and beyond.”

The studios’ chief negotiator said he was still committed to reaching a deal with the writers.

“By the WGA leadership’s actions at the bargaining table, we are not surprised by tonight’s recommendation,” said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. “We are ready to meet and are prepared to close this contract this weekend.”

On Thursday afternoon, Hollywood was acting as if a strike had already been called.

“This feels like Armageddon,” said entertainment attorney David Colden. Studio executives were scrambling to give writers script notes so they could hand in final drafts while writers were holed up finishing their projects. Agents and lawyers were drawing up contracts, scurrying to get their clients paid before a work stoppage.

The guild had instructed all writers with offices on studio lots to pack up their belongings.

“We’ve been told by our strike captains to clear out our offices today,” said Nicole Yorkin, an executive producer on FX’s “The Riches.” She said she and the writing staff, who work in Santa Clarita, were rushing to write final scenes for the drama’s second season, deal with executives’ feedback on drafts and make casting choices -- all before the end of day Thursday.

The union also requested that writers turn in all drafts of their work to make sure no one violated rules that prevent them from writing during a strike.

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Studio executives were going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that some of their top producers and directors who are also writers can keep working. One senior executive said he was making plans to move the editing suite of a feature film off the lot so his writer-producer could continue his work as a filmmaker without crossing a picket line.

On Wednesday, as executives drove onto the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, they were handed copies of two memos from the top brass outlining strict instructions on dealing with pickets, who are expected to show up across town at studios and production sites.

The memos cautioned staffers to “remain calm, proceed slowly so as to not endanger the picketers in the crosswalk or in the sidewalks; leave your vehicle windows up; do not talk to picketers. They may try to argue with you and provoke a dispute.”

A looming strike has heightened anxieties on both sides, reflecting the unique relationship that exists between writers and their studio bosses.

“There’s so much tension because we’re in so deep with our writers,” an executive said. “They’re killing themselves right now for us trying to turn in scripts, and tomorrow we’re going to be on opposite sides of the table. It’s really bizarre.”

In Hollywood, labor relations are distinct from most other industries. In sharp contrast to auto and grocery workers, for example, writers and studio executives essentially work as partners on projects.

“They’re joined at the hip, unlike many manufacturing situations where there is a clear separation between labor and management,” said David Smith, a labor economics professor at Pepperdine University.

A writers strike poses a real dilemma for writer-producers such as Marshall Herskovitz.

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“Working producers are torn,” said Herskovitz, president of the Producers Guild of America. “They certainly identify with the creative community and sympathize with what the writers are asking for. But they’re concerned like everyone else about the negative effects of a drawn-out strike.”

A strike wouldn’t halt production entirely, but it would immediately disrupt some late-night TV programs, such as Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” on NBC. Some series could stop production as early as December once networks used up their stockpiled scripts. Studios have enough films in their pipelines to supply theaters in 2008 but are rushing to finish future movies before a possible strike by actors in June. “It’s a bad day for our town,” said producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose credits include the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise and three “CSI” TV series. “When you have a labor dispute like this, nobody wins.”

Dick Wolf, executive producer of TV’s “Law & Order” franchise, concurred: “This whole thing has brought the town to the precipice of disaster, and there is not one good thing that could come out of it.” But writers feel they have a just cause, complaining that they’ve been shortchanged for years by the studios. “We are ready to do whatever we need to do,” said Jessica Goldstein, who writes for “My Name Is Earl.”

Not every writer favors a strike, though many dissidents fear speaking out.

“There are so many Norma Raes out there, I can’t say anything,” said a top writer-director, referring to the young textile worker and union organizer played by Sally Field in 1979’s Oscar-winning movie.

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

claudia.eller@latimes.com

maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com

Times staff writers Meg James, Lorenza Munoz, Greg Braxton and Andrea Chang contributed to this report.

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Voices

‘I don’t want a strike. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. But if it’s the only way, then it has to be.’

Simon Mirren, a writer and co-executive producer on CBS’ “Criminal Minds” as he headed into the WGA strike meeting at the L.A. Convention Center

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‘It’s just getting to crunch time. So you’re like, oh my God, this thing I worked so hard on, I just wish it could keep going. It’s had this weird effect of making us appreciate what’s there.’

Chip Johannessen, veteran writer and executive producer of CBS’ new show “Moonlight”

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‘My kids don’t understand why I write something, they can download it on the Internet, and I don’t get paid for it. A child can understand it’s not fair.’

Cyrus Voris, executive producer of Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell”

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‘Writers will always write, whether they’re writing for themselves or writing for a corporation. I think there’s guys that’ll write specs, there’s guys that’ll write books, there’s guys that’ll write magazine articles, and guys that’ll write poetry and short stories and everything else. I just don’t think you can turn that off.’

Jeff Nathanson, screenwriter for “Rush Hour 3,” “The Terminal” and “Catch Me If You Can”

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‘I think that if the Writers Guild wants to get serious, they have to hire a team of lawyers to take the studios into court and sue them for collusion, restraint of trade [and] unfair competition. . . . How they get anything done is really more a matter of the studios creating the illusion of throwing the writers a bone, and that’s the way it’s been going for 30 years.’

Dale Launer, whose writing credits include “My Cousin Vinny,” “Blind Date” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”

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‘It’s a bummer here because we’re trying our darnedest so that our younger writers, who aren’t that highly paid, get their script assignments so they can get paid before it happens.’

Bill Lawrence, creator and executive producer of “Scrubs”

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‘I’m going to wait until the new year to start getting nervous. It’s just like [presidential] politics. Four months is a very long time.’

Gilbert Cates, producer of the Academy Awards show on Feb. 24

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‘Make no mistake, we are prepared.’

Leslie Moonves, CBS’ chief executive, in a conference call with industry analysts

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Contributors: Times staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez, Greg Braxton, Lynn Smith, Scott Collins, Andrea Chang, Jay Fernandez, Lorenza Munoz, Robert Welkos and Meg James.


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