Writers to meet with employers

For the first time since they went on strike three weeks ago, showbiz writers will meet today at the bargaining table with their employers.

This session will be the first to take place under a news blackout. Today’s confab, starting at 10 a.m., has been set for an undisclosed neutral site at a hotel without CEOs in attendance.

Neither side’s yet indicated if there will be talks on Tuesday. And the silence is being welcomed in some quarters.

“Both sides need to shut up and stay in the room until they get this resolved,” one labor insider said. “They’ve shown that this can’t be negotiated in the press or on the picket line.”

Optimists theorize that the absence of vituperative end-of-the-day statements — a singular feature of the contract talks since their launch in July — may serve to push both sides to knuckle down instead and start crafting a deal.

If there’s an agreement to be reached, it would build on the concessions both sides began making at the last session on Nov. 4. There’s also hope that today’s session may contain some carry-over momentum from the backchannel efforts two weeks ago by leading agents, who helped persuade both sides to resume talks.

Still, there’s also plenty of room for pessimism given the wide gaps in bargaining positions, the complexity of setting formulas for new-media work and the bitter tone of public comments. That bitterness has abated somewhat over the past week and a half due to the news blackout, but negotiators on both sides will be under heavy pressure.

For its part, the WGA’s resuming pickets at major studios in Hollywood today in the first public action since drawing 4,000 enthusiastic supporters to Tuesday’s march in Hollywood. Without scripts to work on, writers have turned their energies to garnering support in a variety of ways, such as creating strike-related videos; more than 750 were posted on YouTube as of Sunday.

At the Nov. 4 session, the Writers Guild of America took its DVD proposal off the table, leading the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to agree to compensate writers for streaming video — but with a six-week promotional window — and grant the WGA jurisdiction over made-for-the-Internet writing on derivative properties.

But talks broke down after the WGA went on strike in the Eastern time zone, leading to recriminations on both sides. AMPTP topper Nick Counter insisted that the companies would not return to the bargaining table until the guild stopped striking, at least for a few days; WGA West prexy Patric Verrone, frustrated that the companies did not go further on Nov. 4, threatened to put the DVD proposal back on the table.

It took another week before Counter eased up on his demand, and it wasn’t until Nov. 16 that negotiators agreed to set today’s meeting. Since then, the collateral damage from pinkslips and the delay of several major feature films has created additional pressure on both sides; as of last week, the Get Back in That Room website had logged more than 460 strike-related dismissals.

Though the WGA’s winning the public image battle over the congloms for now, guild leaders face the challenge of maintaining unity among members, a significant number of whom are no longer seeing regular paychecks. Entertainment business attorney Jonathan Handel, a former WGA West counsel, said moves by some showrunners to resume performing directing and producing duties also will ratchet up the pressure on the guild.

And should the new round of talks be unproductive, it’s probable the AMPTP would start negotiations with the Directors Guild of America shortly. The DGA has a June 30 contract deadline and usually launches its talks at least six months prior to expiration.

“The DGA’s not going to wait forever, particularly if there’s no significant movement on tough issues at the WGA negotiations,” Handel added.

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