Pressure on both camps grows

SUPPORT: The Rev. Jesse Jackson, from left, visits the picket line at Paramount Pictures with WGA President Patric M. Verrone and France Nuyen, a national board member of the Screen Actors Guild.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Four days after Hollywood’s first major strike in nearly 20 years began, pressures are mounting to get writers and the major studios back to the bargaining table.

On Thursday, leaders from the industry’s top five talent agencies met in secret with guild leaders at the Writers Guild of America’s office in the Fairfax district to offer their help and share a litany of concerns about how the strike was affecting their clients, according to five people with knowledge of the meeting.

Talks between writers and major studios broke off Sunday, mainly over payments for shows that are rerun on the Internet and other new media. Negotiations have not resumed.

Eager to jump-start that process and offer their expertise, top agents from William Morris, International Creative Management, Creative Artists Agency, United Talent Agency and Endeavor met Thursday with top guild leaders, including chief negotiator David Young and union President Patric M. Verrone.

Among other things, agents have offered to be a “collective resource to the union,” lending their expertise to help frame the issues that are at the center of the dispute with studios.

“We’re the closest professional partners they have because we represent the interest of writers every day,” one top agent said.

Several agents said they had been inundated this week with calls from clients worried about their livelihoods. Many TV writers and producers received letters from studios and networks this week suspending their services.

In an interview with The Times at the WGA office less than two hours before the agency representatives showed up at 3:30 p.m., Young denied that any such meeting was scheduled.

“No, I’m not having a meeting with agency heads today,” Young said in a taped interview. “If there is a meeting, I’d know about it.”

He added, however, that he would welcome their input.

After the meeting, Young did not return calls. Agency representatives declined to comment.

The agents and the guild wanted to keep the meeting under wraps because of the highly charged nature of the dispute with the studios, said people familiar with their thinking.

The guild has so far resisted offers by agents and politicians to help broker a peace, according to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others.

Talent agencies have plenty of incentive to help end a strike. They depend on commissions and “packaging fees” they earn from TV shows they help put together.

The strike that began Monday already has cut into the agencies’ potential revenue. Some are slashing travel and entertainment expenses.

Even before the strike, agencies were under pressure to tighten their belts and find new revenue as the industry grappled with wrenching changes in how entertainment is delivered to consumers.

At the same time, the studios were bringing their own pressure to bear on the guild and its members. Early in the week, the companies began sending suspension notices to those who work for TV production companies they finance that are typically run by writer-producers, sending chills through industry ranks. Then they warned writer-producers, known in the industry as show runners, that they faced termination if they failed to carry out their production duties.

Many top show runners have refused to cross picket lines. In an apparent attempt to pressure them to return to work, CBS Corp., 20th Century Fox Television and NBC Universal sent “breach-of-contract” letters to several dozen writer-producers of their shows.

The CBS Paramount letters threatened to stop payment for producer services and to pursue legal action if the writer-producers continued to stay off the job. The Fox studio letters also notified writers that they were in default of their contracts. “You did not report to work . . . to render your non-writing services,” stated the letters, which went out Wednesday night. “Twentieth Century Fox Television is hereby notifying you that the terms of your agreement are immediately suspended.”

Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC Studios sent out letters to writer-producers this week warning them they needed to show up.

On Wednesday, more than 100 show runners of some of TV’s biggest shows -- including “Desperate Housewives,” “The Office” and “Lost” -- staged a rally outside Disney’s studio lot in Burbank. After the rally, they met for lunch at the nearby Smokehouse restaurant before convening a meeting at WGA headquarters.

Some who attended the 3 1/2 -hour meeting described it as very intense and emotional at times, with show runners talking about the difficulty of being caught between their union and their studio bosses. Ultimately, though, there was a consensus that show runners should support the cause by stopping work. Already, production has halted on such top series as “The Office,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Two and a Half Men.”

“If we want this strike to be short, we need to stop work across the board,” said Pam Veasey, executive producer of “CSI: New York.”

Studios, meanwhile, have sent out other letters to writers threatening to sue those who complied with the WGA’s Rule 8, which requires members to turn in finished scripts to get a time stamp, enabling the union to enforce rules that prevent writers from picking up their pens during the strike.

West Coast writers were required to submit copies of their material -- including unproduced and sample scripts -- to the guild by the end of the day Thursday. The process allows the guild to determine the status of material at the beginning of the strike and protect writers against possible accusations of strike-breaking or scab-writing. Writers could submit their material online, in person or by mail.

Reports that studios were threatening to sue writers who turned over their material didn’t deter Adam Waring from uploading two of his TV pilot scripts to the guild’s website soon after the start of the strike.

“I felt it was my responsibility,” Waring said as he picketed Thursday outside Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue. “I’m kind of a foot soldier in this war. Some general up there knows the strategy, and I should just do what they tell me at this point.”

At CBS Studios on Beverly Boulevard, television comedy writer Hugh Fink said, “I support what the WGA is trying to accomplish because it’s a mechanism to stop scab-writing from taking place.”

Yet Fink was undecided. Like many writers, he said he would consult an attorney first.

“Legal principle takes precedent,” he said. “I’m hoping the WGA does have legal jurisdiction in this matter because, in spirit, I’d like to cooperate.”

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.