Writers, studios to resume talks

Times Staff Writers

Hollywood’s film and TV writers and its major studios have agreed to return to the bargaining table, offering the first glimmer of hope that a deal to end a costly two-week strike could be within reach.

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said late Friday that they would resume talks Nov. 26 on a new contract for 10,500 writers to replace the one that expired Oct. 31. The two sides announced the plan in identical statements, a rare show of unity.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to get this thing over,” one top studio executive said Friday. “There is a significant amount of work to be done but you can’t resolve anything if you’re not talking.”


Union officials, however, said that resuming the negotiations didn’t mean writers would call off their strike, including plans for a massive march along Hollywood Boulevard on Tuesday.

To keep the pressure on studios, guild officials said they intended to keep staging pickets and rallies in L.A. and New York until an agreement was reached.

Both sides have been under pressure to return to the bargaining table after talks broke down Nov. 4 amid disputes over how much writers should be paid when their work is distributed on new media such as the Internet.

Although it was unclear which side took the initiative to revive the talks, the decision was mutual, according to people close to the matter. The breakthrough came about as a result of back-channel talks between prominent television writers and senior executives, including News Corp. President Peter Chernin, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, Warner Bros. Entertainment Chairman Barry Meyer and CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.

Clearing the way for talks to restart was a decision this week by Nick Counter, the studios’ chief negotiator, to drop his demand that talks not occur as long as writers were on strike.

The strike was starting to cause economic pain.

At least two dozen TV shows have come to a grinding halt. The late-night shows, including “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and “Late Show With David Letterman,” went into repeats because those shows are topical and dependent on guild writers. A wave of prime-time comedies also shut down, including CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and NBC’s “The Office,” as well as such popular dramas as ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

On Friday, the writers strike halted a high-profile movie: Columbia Pictures’ “Angels & Demons,” the sequel to the blockbuster “The Da Vinci Code.”

The disruption of production threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of crew members as well as administrative assistants and other workers who risked the loss of their jobs when several studios suspended production deals with top writer-producers. Both sides are motivated to resolve the dispute before it disrupts next year’s pilot season.

Scores of businesses that feed on the area’s $30-billion entertainment industry also saw their businesses take a hit.

Many directors said they wanted to hold off on their own union’s talks in support of the writers, and such celebrities as Ron Howard even wielded picket signs at Writers Guild rallies.

Studios also confronted an unusually strong show of unity from a group that in the past had been prone to internal bickering. Leading TV writer-producers, known as show runners, have played a key role in the strike. While some have been working behind the scenes to edit their shows, few have crossed picket lines to resume writing, forcing the early shutdown of several programs.

“The studios have underestimated the resolve of the guild,” said Carlton Cuse, one of the show runners on ABC’s “Lost” and a member of the guild’s negotiating committee. He spoke early Friday morning while walking the picket line outside the gates of Walt Disney Co.

The studios were applying their own pressure to have their show runners report to work. CBS Corp. and 20th Century Fox Television quickly sent breach-of-contract letters to several dozen writer-producers who had refused to fulfill their production duties.

Among those who sought to jump-start talks were top talent agents, who met with guild leaders last week. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger weighed in, reaching out to both sides this week.

When they meet in about 10 days, the two sides may be able to build on progress that was made in the talks that ended Nov. 4, the first day of serious negotiations.

Writers had agreed to drop their demand for doubling DVD pay, while studios had for the first time offered a proposal for paying writers for the streaming of shows online, though they sharply disagreed on terms.


Times staff writer Joseph Menn contributed to this report.