H'w'd waits as WGA negotiations continue

HOLLYWOOD — Hollywood’s writers maintained their best poker face Wednesday with no sign of final resolution as their intensely scrutinized film-TV talks blew an entire day past the contract deadline.

The day’s key development came in the late afternoon with the arrival of a group of execs including U’s Stacey Snider, DreamWorks Jeffrey Katzenberg, Fox’s Tom Rothman, Sony’s Ken Lemberger and CBS’s Les Moonves.

Though all are members of the industry’s “creative rights” panel for the negotiations, the presence of the toppers at a crucial stage of the talks probably also meant that they focussed on key financial issues.

The toppers refused comment but their presence on the day after expiration of the writers’ contract signalled a heightened desire by studios and nets to reach a deal.

But neither side budged from the news blackout at Writers Guild of America West headquarters in Hollywood. At press time, reps for negotiators had only disclosed that talks resumed at noon PDT, following a marathon 17-hour session that ended close to 3 a.m. Wednesday morning, three hours after the expiration.

Mounting speculation

Speculation continued to emerge that negotiators were moving toward a tentative deal, but observers cautioned that key issues remained in play with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers not yet having made a final offer.

The WGA also disptued a Los Angeles Times report, based on unnamed sources, that a deal was “within reach.”

“To date, none of these so-called ‘sources close to the talks’ have been correct,” the guild said in a statement to members. “We are maintaining the blackout because it is in the best interest of achieving an agreement that will be a fair deal for writers.”

WGAW exec director John McLean told the Assn. of Talent Agents on Wednesday that as long as negotiations continue, provisions of the expired contract would remain in effect even though an extension agreement had not been signed.

That statement reiterated recent guild guidance to its 11,500 members that they should keep working if employed unless and until a strike order is issued.

Work continued to be sporadic Wednesday at studios, agencies and production companies as the industry fretted over the outcome of the talks.

“The phones are pretty much silent today,” one agent reported.

Neverending story

The talks could be extended on a day-to-day basis for several more days.

But there is mounting pressure on both sides to reach some kind of resolution due to the requirement for TV networks to set fall schedules by mid-May and the need to launch film-TV negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

The willingness of negotiators to keep going past expiration plus the ongoing news blackout sparked rumors that they had started hammering out the outlines of a tentative deal and begun crafting specific language.

Speculation included Fox Network agreeing to boost residuals from the current 66% rate of those paid by ABC, CBS and NBC and the AMPTP ditching its “double burst” demand for a discounted rerun on residuals for new programs within a 14-day window. The WGA had calculated that the double burst proposal would result in a $31.2 million decline in pay to writers over the three-year life of the contract.

Despite the expiration, the WGA had not set a strike authorization vote for members, which would be required for its leaders to issue a strike order.

Talking heads

WGA member John Ireland said Hollywood speculation had taken a positive turn Wednesday with the talks moving past the deadline. He said recent moves by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to highlight economic damage from writer and actor strikes could be helping to push negotiators toward a settlement.

“If they do reach a tentative deal, I think it’s partly because of the pressure from the outside community to look at the big picture,” said Ireland, who has criticized guild leaders as being too aggressive in their negotiating strategy.

“Working WGA members are afraid of a strike but the danger is from the members who are not working,” he said.

About half of the guild’s members work each year and a member must have sold work within a four-year period to maintain active status.

WGA member Rene Balcer, co-creator and exec producer of NBC’s “Criminal Intent,” said Guild members remain hesitant about striking despite the call over the last two years by WGAW prexy John Wells for more aggressive bargaining.

“There’s not a big appetite to strike unless the issues are substantial,’ Balcer said. “The mood among writers is that they feel the need to embrace a deal. It’s got to have some steak and not just some sizzle.”

Economic concerns

UCLA economist Tom Lieser said Wednesday that negotiators also may be facing pressure to settle due to the shakiness of the economy.

“Strikes are not as troublesome if the economy is booming,” he added. “But if the economy is slowing down, then actors and writers will find it harder to find alternate employment.”

Lieser said the recent surge in production activity to stockpile programming has probably benefited Southern California over the short term but he said the region is heading for a slowdown due to problems in the high tech sector and power shortages.

“Strikes by writers and actors will be costly if they’re not resolved right away,” Lieser added.

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