Talks resume with 8-hour session; more on tap today

Times Staff Writers

Facing mounting pressure to limit the economic havoc on the entertainment industry, negotiators for writers and major studios met Monday in an accelerated effort to end a strike now in its fourth week.

After weeks of acrimony and vitriol, the two sides got down to their first serious talks since Nov. 4 -- the day before writers walked off the job.

The hard-line positions taken by both parties have given way in recent days to the realization that they need to move quickly if they are to salvage the current and upcoming TV seasons. The strike has caused more disruption than studios had anticipated, shutting down dozens of shows and throwing thousands of people out of work.


A powerful group of top writer-producers, who dominate television’s prime-time schedule, also are highly motivated to stem the bleeding, both to save their shows from cancellation and to keep their staffs employed.

Monday’s eight-hour session began at 10 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. before the sides broke off and agreed to resume their talks again today. It was the first of three meetings to which the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers had previously committed. The sessions could be crucial in determining whether the parties can get a new three-year contract by year’s end, people close to the negotiations said.

Some industry insiders are skeptical that a deal is imminent because the parties have been far apart on such key issues as how much writers are paid when their work is sold or re-used on the Internet, cellphones, digital video players and other new-media devices.

Nonetheless, there were some encouraging signs that the sides were at least serious about trying to negotiate a new contract.

For one thing, they agreed to a press blackout, with each side giving its members strict instructions not to talk to the media. That’s in stark contrast to previous bargaining sessions that often culminated in each party issuing vitriolic news releases at the end of the day.

To avoid leaks, Writers Guild leaders even told members they would not give regular updates on the talks until there was something definitive to announce.

“Until now, both sides have been negotiating in the press, and doing a press blackout means they want to get down to business,” said one former executive at the Writers Guild of America who asked not to be identified because the person was not authorized to speak.

In another positive sign, most of the members of the Writers Guild’s negotiating committee attended Monday’s session, along with more than a dozen labor relations executives from the major studios. The last time they met -- on Nov. 4 -- only a handful of top guild leaders were present, including President Patric M. Verrone, chief negotiator David Young and negotiating committee Chairman John F. Bowman.

Still, not much progress was made in tackling the biggest issues that divided them. The parties mainly reviewed the positions each had staked out when they last met. No major new proposals were presented, people familiar with the session said.

“Nothing substantive happened today,” said one person who had been briefed on the meeting but asked not to be identified.

Observers say it could take several days, if not weeks, for the two sides to reach an agreement. As in many negotiations, both sides may have to come down from their initial positions.

Studios have previously proposed paying a DVD residual rate on digital downloads. That amounts to 0.36% of wholesale revenues, well below the 2.5% writers are seeking. Studios also proposed paying a 1.2% residual rate for shows streamed online, but only after a six-week window.

Writers wanted a three-day window and were incensed about a controversial proposal that would allow full-length movies and TV shows to be streamed for free online without residuals being paid.

Another big sticking point is pay for shows created for the Web. While the guild wants all Web shows to be covered under their agreement, the studios proposed paying only for Web episodes based on scripted network shows.

Neither side tipped its hand as to how much it might compromise on those issues. For all their differences, both camps appear highly motivated to get a deal done.

Monday’s meeting came about after a flurry of back-channel contacts between top writers and senior media executives, aided by such Hollywood talent agents as Creative Artists Agency’s Bryan Lourd.

Still, Writers Guild officials continued to keep pressure on studios with more rallies planned through December. Picketing at Hollywood’s major studios resumed Monday, and today in New York the guild plans a major “solidarity rally” in Washington Square Park joined by Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards and others.