Anticipation builds as shows, films shut down

News that talks between the studios and scribes will resume next week has been met with a mixture of relief and cautious optimism.

The big question: Is the agreement to meet largely a PR move in response to the rising tide of pressure from outside parties affected adversely by the shutdown of so many TV skeins and some previously greenlit pics?

According to industry insiders who’ve been in the thick of the shuttle diplomacy to nudge the AMPTP back to the table with the WGA, indications from both camps is that there is a deal to be made. The clutch of agents who were key to getting the sides to set the Nov. 26 date knew that no good would come of a purely pro forma meeting that would result in the two sides butting heads again after five minutes.

Negotiations are expected to take place on neutral turf — much like the last negotiations on Nov. 4, the night before the guild went out, that were held at the Sofitel hotel in West Hollywood. All other meetings since the WGA and AMPTP began formal talks in July were held at Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers HQ in Encino or WGA West’s Fairfax Avenue HQ.

The sides also agreed to a “news blackout” in an effort to clamp down on the spin and counterspin and put the emphasis on the work to be done at the negotiating table.

The WGA will hold its final events today before taking a five-day Thanksgiving break. In New York, the guild is staging a picket at Sony headquarters; in Hollywood, it’s holding off on picketing in favor of a Labor Solidarity rally at 1 p.m., followed by a march on Hollywood Boulevard. Alicia Keyes is tentatively scheduled to perform at the rally.

The breakthrough that brought the two sides back to the table came last week, following days of dialogue among key partners of the Big Five agencies — primarily CAA’s Bryan Lourd, Endeavor’s Rick Rosen, ICM’s Jeff Berg, UTA’s Jim Berkus and WMA’s Jim Wiatt — and the four top execs who have been most directly engaged in the AMPTP’s talks: News Corp.’s Peter Chernin, Disney’s Robert Iger, Warner Bros.’ Barry Meyer and CBS Corp.’s Leslie Moonves.

That foursome kept in close contact as the strike raged during the past two weeks. Meanwhile, the agents conferred and agreed as of last week to largely channel their efforts through Lourd, who had successfully reached out to WGA exec director David Young.

Lourd “signed (Young) as a client,” quipped one top rep at a CAA rival.

By Thursday, there was an agreement that the sides would have a stealth meeting at Lourd’s Beverly Hills home for lunch. It was agreed that the AMPTP side would send two ambassadors, Chernin and Iger, to meet with Young and WGA West prexy Patric Verrone. CBS’ Moonves has been among the most active in working the phones and talking with top showrunners and industry rainmakers, but he was at his home base in Gotham at the time the meeting was set.

Because none of the principals are talking about the meeting, it’s not at all clear what was said over lunch at Lourd’s on Friday. But Sources close to both camps say there was enough positive momentum for the sides to quickly agree — much to the surprise of many guild and studio insiders — to get back to the bargaining table right after Thanksgiving.

It was also noted that Nick Counter had sent the message earlier in the week that the AMPTP was willing to back off from its previous stance that picketing had to stop before the studios would return to the table.

Another big contributing factor to the resumption of talks was the “thickening of the swamp,” in the words of a showbiz lawyer, of problems caused by the sudden shutdown of so many projects — not only the pinkslipping of below-the-line crews and production staff but also questions of how to handle the contracts with actors and directors under contract to work on shows.

“It’s a big mess that’s only getting bigger the longer this goes on,” the legal eagle said.

On the picket lines Monday morning, details of last week’s backchannel diplomatic missions were still fuzzy, but the sentiment produced was unmistakable.

Steve Levitan, co-creator and exec producer of Fox sitcom “Back to You,” said he was “very, very happy that people are finally doing the right thing and talking.” Levitan was one of several hyphenates who helped kickstart the bargaining.

“Neither side wanted to return to the table without feeling there was a deal to be made,” Levitan said. “They had to at least figure out that they were close enough.”

Levitan’s sentiment was echoed by a fellow TV scribe across town who picketed outside the Paramount gate.

“I’m very hopeful that they can find a way to meet in the middle,” said Jack Kenny. “Negotiations can be pretty simple — They say ‘one,’ we say ’10,’ and we agree on five.”

Outside of 20th Century Fox, pickets were cheered by the fact that as many as six trucks hauling production equipment and construction materials refused in the early ayem to cross the picket line outside a delivery gate. The strong show of support from Teamsters, SAG and others has gone a long way toward showing the studios that the writers have the resolve to stick it out until they get a “fair deal,” according to Earl Davis, a TV scribe who worked the early picket shift at Fox on Monday.

“I’m hopeful” regarding the resumption of talks, Davis said. “It’s good that the writers never backed down. It shows we’re serious. I wonder if they’re doing it just because it’s the politically correct thing, but I’m glad everybody’s getting back to the table.”

Others noted that in a best-case scenario in which the sides come to a fairly quick agreement on a contract, scribes would have plenty of time to get pilot season back on its regular January-April sked.

“Everybody is going into the holiday optimistic,” said Mark Cullen, a TV scribe who has a pilot ready to go before the cameras for Fox, as he walked the big loop outside the studio’s main entry. Gary Scott Thompson, creator and exec producer of NBC’s “Las Vegas,” is in the same boat as Cullen with a pilot ready to roll at NBC.

“Pilot season is totally salvageable,” said Gary Scott Thompson, creator and exec producer of “Las Vegas,” who has a pilot ready to roll at NBC. “I think this whole town breathed a huge sigh of relief when they heard the news” that talks would resume.

Jacob Epstein, a film and TV scribe who also walked the line at 20th on Monday, noted that despite the tough talk of the major congloms about their ability to withstand a strike, “big corporations don’t like chaos. They don’t like things they can’t control.”

Epstein said he’s cautiously optimistic about the prospects for a quick resolution. “They never expected us to have such solidarity. In 1988, you had the movie writers fighting the TV writers. This time around, we’re all focused on the fact that the Internet is our future.”

An insider at a union that has kept a laser-like focus on the WGA strike said he was neither pessimistic nor optimistic about the talks.

“It’s a step both sides had to take, since neither wants to be blamed at this point,” he said.

He said he feels the WGA has been winning the PR war, largely because the AMPTP member companies have been what he characterized as “tone deaf” — first by proposing scrapping the residuals system for a recoupment-based system; and then, to a lesser extent, by not responding more substantively to the WGA’s agreement to withdraw its bid for higher DVD residual rates on Nov. 4, the last time the sides met the night before the strike began.

“The AMPTP just poured gas on the fire with the residuals proposal,” he said. “The WGA has been able to portray themselves as acting like adults, but that momentum can shift very quickly if the strike goes for much longer. It’s also ironic that a lot of this is playing out on the Internet when that’s where the big financial argument is.”

( Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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