Prospect of work stoppage speeds prod'n

Although the WGA’s contract for showbiz writers doesn’t expire until October 2007, the guild’s tactics have convinced studios and networks that a strike is a strong possibility.

“We have no choice but to plan for a strike, given the noise and belligerence from the guild,” Alliance of Motion Picture & TV Producers prexy Nicholas Counter tells Variety. “I’ve been doing this since 1982 and, except for the 1988 strike, this is the lowest point of the relationship.”

Film execs are starting to stockpile scripts and accelerate production. In TV, the prospect of a work stoppage means trying to shoot more episodes of scripted series, being less inclined to launch new series and planning for more reality, news and sports programming.

WGA leaders aren’t predicting a strike. But “a strike is a possibility — no more and no less,” says WGA West prez Patric Verrone. “The industry should be doing everything in its power to prevent it by accommodating the talent community and its demands.”

WGA East prexy Chris Albers adds: “We refuse to engage in chatter about a strike. There is plenty of time for the companies to show us that they value the content we create and that they intend to compensate us whenever and wherever it appears.”

The key issues at the upcoming contract talks — not yet scheduled — will probably include hard-to-resolve issues like digital downloads, jurisdiction, new media and product integration.

Counter is often engaged in pre-negotiations posturing to paint the WGA as overly aggressive and unrealistic, but he says he’s particularly perturbed by the conduct of Verrone and interim exec director David Young. Hesays he hasn’t had a single direct communication with Verrone since his election last fall.

“They’ve acted arrogantly and all the signs are that they are getting ready for war,” Counter adds.

He ticks off a list of what he sees as the guild taking a harder line: the campaign to seek increased revenues from product placement for writers on TV shows; its attempts to organize reality TV writers; its sponsorship of lawsuits by reality show writers alleging wage and overtime violations; and its denunciations of ABC-Disney’s decision to pay iPod residuals at the lower homevideo rate.

Last week, the WGA West board named Young its exec director, a move still subject to approval from membership. The guild’s former organizing director, Young assumed the top WGA West slot on an interim basis in September after the board fired John McLean.

That move came a week after Verrone’s slate swept to an overwhelming victory following a campaign promising the guild would beef up organizing efforts to the tune of 30% of its budget.

Verrone is not backing away from that pledge, either, noting that this push has resulted in jurisdiction over telenovelas, videogames, mobisodes and webisodes, along with getting worldwide coverage over the striking “America’s Next Top Model” writers.

(The WGA has held several weeks of demonstrations to gain guild contracts for striking writers on “America’s Next Top Model.”)

“I consider that a satisfying expansion to expenditure ratio,” he adds.

The WGA last struck in 1988 and stayed out for five months, delaying the start of the fall TV season. Writers lost hundreds of millions of dollars; the Big Three nets never recovered the audience share lost to cable and local TV.

There’s another potential headache for Hollywood from the closer relationship between the WGA and SAG, where control of the boardroom shifted last fall to a more assertive faction. Were the writers to strike, a WGA work stoppage might push SAG into a hardline bargaining stance, followed by a walkout when the current film-TV contract expires in June 2008.

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