Writers relent on 2 key demands

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Hollywood’s striking writers, signaling a possible thaw in the 3-month-old labor dispute, have agreed to drop two demands that studios have long viewed as non-starters.

Leaders of the Writers Guild of America told top studio chiefs during a meeting Tuesday that they would ditch previous proposals to unionize writers who work on animated movies and reality TV shows.

That marks a switch from last month, when writers balked at studio demands to take those and other proposals off the table as a condition for continuing talks on the core issue: how much writers should earn when their work is delivered over the Internet, cellphones and other new-media devices.

Securing the union’s jurisdiction in the burgeoning reality TV sector has been a priority for Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West. Verrone and other guild officials declined to comment. But in a letter to members, Verrone and Michael Winship, president of the guild’s East Coast wing, said they made the decision in hopes of “bringing a speedy conclusion to negotiations.”

The guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the major studios in negotiations, said in a joint statement that they would meet again today to determine whether there is enough common ground to resume formal negotiations.

In what appears to be an effort to defuse tension, the union urged members to “exercise restraint in their public statements.” Previous negotiations had been marred by vitriolic rhetoric on both sides. Picketing continues, but at a scaled-back level.

The guild is facing pressure from some of its top members to use the new contract between the studios and directors as an opportunity to revive their own negotiations. Although opinions vary among writers over the merits of the directors contract, several WGA negotiation committee members contend that it provides a potential basis for a deal.

Studios also have incentive to end a strike that has been far costlier than they anticipated. If the walkout stretches into next month, it will disrupt the TV pilot season and possibly spoil Hollywood’s biggest awards show, the Oscars, which could face pickets and boycotts by actors.

The new contract for directors boosted residual payments for movies and TV shows sold online, established jurisdiction over original shows created for the Web above certain thresholds and for the first time established payments for shows streamed on advertising-supported websites.

Some writers are unhappy with aspects of the contract, including a provision related to original content produced for the Internet.

Since the accord was announced, studio chiefs have been pressing show runners and screenwriters to urge their union leaders to fashion a contract modeled after the one reached with directors.

It took directors just five days to secure their contract, which came about after several weeks of informal talks with the studio chiefs. In contrast to the writers negotiations, which involved a large group of labor relations executives from the major studios, directors took a different approach. They met in a smaller group led by News Corp. President Peter Chernin and Walt Disney Co. Chairman Bob Iger.

The writers have agreed to follow the same process and will now negotiate directly with the same top media executives.

Also on Tuesday, the WGA board decided that it would not picket the Feb. 10 Grammy Awards in L.A. However, the guild still has not decided whether to grant an interim contract allowing writers to work on the show.

After the Golden Globes telecast collapsed this month, the producers of the Grammys launched a public campaign to distance “music’s biggest night” from controversy surrounding the strike.

The decision takes considerable pressure off producers who are trying to book the performers on the CBS show as well as nominees such as Justin Timberlake, Beyonce and Queen Latifah, who also have memberships in the Screen Actors Guild.

Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.