No happy ending in sight

Times Staff Writer

Halloween is looking scarier than ever for Hollywood.

Studio executives and representatives of the Writers Guild of America abruptly ended talks Friday amid growing pessimism that they would be able to reach an agreement before the union’s contract expires at month’s end.

Although the two sides have agreed to meet again Tuesday, the lack of tangible progress in on-and-off-negotiations since July has deepened fears that writers will go on strike as early as this fall.

“There’s no question there’s a lot of anxiety, not just among writers but also among network and film executives,” said Los Angeles entertainment attorney Daniel H. Black, partner at Greenberg Traurig. “Do you greenlight a movie? How long is the shooting going to be? Do we have to lay off employees? There are a lot of moving pieces here.”


A strike could cause upheaval in the entertainment industry that drives much of Los Angeles’ economy. Writers last struck in 1988 for 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500 million.

With much at stake and a contract deadline looming, many in Hollywood had hoped that talks would begin in earnest this week. Instead, meetings on Thursday and Friday only yielded more acrimony, with studio executives accusing their guild counterparts of refusing to engage in serious discussions.

“This is the most frustrating and futile attempt at bargaining that anyone on the negotiating team has encountered,” said J. Nicholas Counter III, the studios’ chief negotiator and president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. “We are farther apart today than when we started and the only outcome we see is disaster engineered by the present leadership of the WGA.”

Guild leaders say it is the producers, and not they, who have been unwilling to engage. Writers are seeking a larger share of DVD revenue; an extension of guild pay and benefits to reality TV programs; and pay for work distributed via the Internet.

Producers argue that online entertainment is too new to establish pay formulas now and want more flexibility to promote their shows online. Citing rising marketing and production costs, they are calling for revamping the decades-old system of residual payments -- fees talent receive beyond the initial showing of their shows or films. Studios propose paying residuals only after they’ve recouped their costs.

That’s a deeply unpopular proposal among the union’s nearly 12,000-plus members.

“While the WGA remains determined to make a fair deal, at this stage of the negotiations the AMPTP is still stuck on its rollback proposals, including profit-based residuals,” a statement from several guild writers said. “Our members will not stand for that. The entertainment industry is successful and growing like never before. Writers, whose creativity is at the heart of that success and growth, are committed to sharing in it.”


The statement came from writers including Neal Baer (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) and John Bowman (“Saturday Night Live”).

Bowman, the committee chairman, did not attend Friday’s meeting because he was working on an upcoming TV show, a guild official said.

During Friday’s meeting at the alliance’s headquarters in Encino, Counter reiterated concerns that producers were forced to make residual payments on unprofitable movies and TV shows. Labor relations executives took turns arguing the need to change rules that limit their ability to promote TV shows online to draw younger audiences.

After the presentation, Carol Lombardini, the alliance’s executive vice president, asked David Young, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West, if he had any questions.

“No,” he said.

Lombardini then discussed some of the guild’s other proposals.

After about an hour, Young suggested the parties take a break. By noon, however, guild officials told their counterparts they would not return to the bargaining table until Tuesday, making some executives livid.

“There is absolutely no dialogue going on,” said one executive involved in the talks who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak for the studios. “I’m more and more convinced than ever that they’ve made up their mind to strike.”


Bracing for possible strikes by writers and actors, networks and studios have accelerated production of various movies, TV shows and pilots, stockpiled scripts and ordered up more reality TV shows, game shows and new programs that they could run during a strike.

Writers are scrambling to complete scripts by Oct. 31 and make sure they have enough money to cover mortgage payments and other living expenses.