Writers, studios to revive negotiations

Times Staff Writers

Spurred by the day-old employment contract signed by the Directors Guild of America, Hollywood’s writers and the major studios agreed Friday to resume talks, hoping to reach an agreement that would end the nearly 11-week-old strike, according to several people close to the matter.

Writers Guild of America leaders plan to meet as early as Tuesday with News Corp. President Peter Chernin and possibly other top executives, reviving talks that studios broke off early last month, the people said. Representatives of the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, declined to comment on the meeting.

But in an interview Friday, Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, said the union welcomed an offer made by the studios Thursday to resume bargaining. “Everyone wants us to get back into negotiations, and that’s what we intend to do,” Verrone said.

Verrone declined to give his assessment of the tentative DGA deal, saying guild officials were still studying its contents. The guild’s negotiating committee will meet today to discuss the directors deal and make recommendations to Verrone and Executive Director David Young on how to proceed in their upcoming talks.

Guild leaders face mounting pressure from show runners and screenwriters to use the DGA agreement as a basis for a new three-year contract of their own. The guild has scheduled outreach meetings with members in the next two weeks to brief them on the DGA agreement.


Though the directors deal falls short of what the writers were seeking, it generally received positive reviews by several negotiating-committee members and top writers.

“I’m really impressed with how mindful the DGA was [in striking a] deal good enough to put the whole town back to work,” said Scott Frank (“Minority Report,” “The Interpreter”), who is a DGA member and a former Writers Guild board member.

“They were under enormous pressure, and they seem to have delivered.”

Writer-producer John Wells (“ER,” “West Wing”), who has close ties to the studios, went further. “This is a precedent-setting deal,” the former guild president said, “much better than any deal negotiated for the creative guilds in several decades.” Wells expressed his support of the DGA deal in an e-mail Friday morning to hundreds of writer colleagues.

Though many writers view the new DGA contract as far from perfect, they say it makes strides toward their main goal: securing fair pay for work distributed over the Internet, cellphones, digital video players and other devices.

Sales of digital downloads are small today but are expected to grow rapidly in the next decade as entertainment migrates online. Some analysts estimate that movie download revenue will rise to nearly $2 billion by 2011.

Studios gave directors considerably more than they had offered writers before their talks broke down.

Among other things, directors managed to double the residual payments they currently receive when movies and TV shows are sold online. As recently as a few weeks ago, Wells said, the studios vowed that they would never raise the rate.

Also appealing to writers was a provision in the directors contract extending union contracts to Web shows, both original works and those derived from existing scripted television programs. Web shows that cost more than $15,000 a minute or $300,000 an episode would be covered under the directors contract.

Although most original Web content costs less than that to produce, an influx of traditional filmmakers is quickly increasing budgets. One recent example is “quarterlife,” the $5-million-plus Web series created by Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, producers of the hit television series “thirtysomething” and films including “Blood Diamond.”

Still, some writers contend that the thresholds are too high because the vast majority of original Web shows currently are made on shoestring budgets of $500 to $6,000 an episode.

The directors deal for the first time provides a system for compensating talent for shows that are streamed free on ad-supported websites. Directors would get a fixed fee of about $1,200 in the first year that a one-hour drama is offered online. That’s a vast improvement over the $250 that studios offered writers in their talks.

Some writers, however, complained that the deal would give studios too wide a promotional window for streaming shows online before they have to start paying residuals.

Studios would get a 17-day window for existing shows and 24 days on new series. The concern is that most viewers watch reruns of their favorite shows online within days after the initial broadcast -- not weeks -- giving studios little incentive to run a program beyond the promotional window.