Strike's still on, but end is in sight

Times Staff Writers

The Writers Guild of America leadership recommended Saturday that striking writers approve a contract offer from television networks and movie studios, signaling a likely -- but not immediate -- resolution to the crippling labor impasse.

The tentative pact -- which guild members greeted enthusiastically but hardly exuberantly -- still requires a ratification vote to end the 14-week strike. The guild had considered allowing its 10,000 members to return to work Monday, but decided to give writers a chance to consider the contract.

The guild expects the strike votes to be counted -- and writers to be back at their keyboards -- as early as Wednesday. If approved, the contract would not take effect for about two weeks.

Until the strike is lifted, thousands of workers in businesses as varied as catering, lighting and security will remain furloughed, and the production of new television episodes will not resume right away. The fate of the Feb. 24 Academy Awards remains in limbo, as show organizers have said they need at least two weeks of writing to prepare the ceremony and have not yet been granted a waiver from the guild that would permit such work.

"We have a deal," Patric Verrone, president of the guild's West Coast branch, told thousands of cheering out-of-work writers in a special meeting Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium. "More importantly, you have a deal."

Verrone said the final details of the deal between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers were resolved at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, and the guild convened meetings of its members on both coasts later that day to walk them through the terms.

While the proposed deal did not deliver any landmark gains for the writers, it did not include any of the rollbacks proffered by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Guild leaders -- who were welcomed at the Shrine with several sustained standing ovations -- said that it was the best agreement they could obtain, and that it gave writers new compensation formulas for work created for, streamed and rebroadcast on the Internet.

"It is the best deal the guild has bargained for in 30 years. Admittedly, the contract has some holes," Verrone said. The studios declined to comment.

"I think we came away with a good deal," Michael Winship, president of the guild's East Coast branch, said at the New York meeting. "I hope the membership endorses it."

The guild had enjoyed remarkable solidarity in the early weeks of its strike, which began Nov. 5. Most television talk shows went off the air right away, and thanks to the support of the writer-producers of scripted television shows, new episodes of most series disappeared in the following weeks. With the Screen Actors Guild honoring Writers Guild pickets, the writers were able to turn the usually glitzy Golden Globe Awards into a disastrous, star-free news conference. (Today's Grammy Awards received a guild waiver, allowing them to proceed.)

But in recent weeks, the guild's rock-hard unity began to weaken. In mid-January, the Directors Guild of America reached a deal with the television networks and movie studios that caused friction among the writers, with some claiming the Directors Guild pact was worthy while others were deriding it. Soon thereafter, some prominent writers and top TV writer-producers began lobbying guild leaders privately to try to resolve the costly dispute. Estimates of the strike's economic impact have ranged from $380 million to $1.5 billion.

The Writers Guild's negotiating committee is scheduled to meet this morning to endorse the deal before the guild's board, which also is expected to recommend it to members.

"You can decide whether to lift the strike," Verrone told members gathered at the Shrine. "The decision to lift the strike will be yours."

But even if guild members approve the agreement, it does not mean that Hollywood's labor woes are over. Officials of the 120,000-member actors union have sounded increasingly militant ahead of the June expiration of the Screen Actors Guild contract. And the writers' deal came together only when two top industry executives -- News Corp.'s Peter Chernin and the Walt Disney Co.'s Robert Iger -- circumvented formal talks to hammer out a deal on their own.

Under the tentative deal, film and television writers, who previously got nothing for shows and movies streamed over the Internet, will receive a fixed residual payment of $1,200 a year for one-hour shows streamed online in the first two years of the new contract.

In the third year of the deal, however, they would receive something directors will not: residuals equal to 2% of the revenue received by the program's distributor. Productions of certain shows created for the Internet will now be covered by the Writers Guild contract.

"The reason for this strike was to make sure we had coverage of the Internet, that it didn't become a guild-free zone, and I think we accomplished that," said Warren Leight, executive producer of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

"I think some people will push for more. But it becomes one of those analyses: How much more can you get for how much more pain?" he said.

The tentative agreement also includes a doubling of the residual rate for movies and TV shows sold online and secures the union's jurisdiction over content created specifically for the Web, above certain budget thresholds. And like directors, writers would receive a 3.5% increase in minimum pay rates for television and film work.

"It is an agreement that protects a future in which the Internet becomes the primary means of both content creation and delivery," the guild said in an e-mail to its members. "We believe that continuing to strike now will not bring sufficient gains to outweigh the potential risks and that the time has come to accept this contract and settle the strike."

Carmen Culver, a writer for movies and miniseries, called the agreement a complicated deal. "There were some parts I was very happy about and others less so," she said. "But I'm extremely proud of the guild for hanging tough. It's a great day for the labor movement. We have really stood up and said to these corporations that it all begins with the word. I think the big boys have been brought to their knees."

Filmmaker Michael Moore came out of the New York meeting substantially more enthusiastic than when he entered. "This is an historic moment for labor in this country," Moore said. "To have the writers union stand up like we did, not give back a single thing and make them give -- it was a really great moment."

john.horn@latimes.com

matea.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this story.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How it stacks up

What they got:

A fixed residual payment of $1,200 a year for one-hour shows streamed online during the first two years of the contract. In the third year, a residual payment equal to 2% of the revenue received by the program's distributor.

Jurisdiction over shows that are created for the Web.

Doubling of the residual rate for movies and TV shows sold online.

A 3.5% annual increase in basic minimum pay for film and TV scripts.

What they didn't get:

No jurisdiction over reality TV and feature animation.

No increase in DVD residual rates.

A shorter window during which studios can stream shows online before paying writers.

Source: Times reporting

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Voices

'The question is, do you rescind the strike before a membership vote, and some people don't want to do that.'

Warren Leight, executive producer, "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"

'This is an historic moment for labor in this country. To have the writers union stand up like we did, not give back a single thing and make them give.'

Michael Moore, filmmaker

'There were some parts I was very happy about and others less so. But I'm extremely proud of the guild for hanging tough. We have really stood up and said to these corporations that it all begins with the word. I think the big boys have been brought to their knees.'

Carmen Culver,

movie and TV writer

'It is the best deal the guild has bargained for in 30 years. Admittedly, the contract has some holes.'

Patric Verrone,

president, WGA West

'I think we negotiated a good deal. I think we were right about the things we struck for.'

Seth Meyers, writer, "Saturday Night Live"

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