Slow pace frustrating, holidays loom

With few clear signs that the five-week writers strike will end soon, the WGA faces the daunting prospect that the majors will lose patience with the slow pace of negotiations and make a take-it-or-leave-it offer as early as next week.

Little progress emerged from Thursday’s talks, with both sides meeting briefly in the morning, followed by WGA negotiators waiting most of the day for the companies’ response in two key new-media areas — Intenet downloads and jurisdiction.

Neither side issued a statement at the end of the day other than confirming that negotiations will resume in the ayem today for the fourth straight day. But time’s starting to run out, partly due to the looming holiday season with Christmas and New Year’s Day falling midweek and essentially wiping out any chance for the sides to meet for those two weeks — should they still be negotiating.

At the close of talks Wednesday night, the WGA issued a guardedly optimistic statement indicating that it had, during the two previous days, achieved its first “substantive” talks with studios and nets on issues important to writers.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers — which is amidst a PR shuffle — has responded only defending its New Economic Partnership proposal, which the WGA dismissed out of hand last week. Informed sources indicated Thursday that recent progress has been relatively minimal, with major gaps remaining on thorny issues such as writers receiving ad revenues, Internet streaming of theatrical product, digital downloads and jurisdiction over made-for-the-Internet original content.

The WGA went public on Wednesday with details of its counteroffer to companies on streaming for TV dramas, proposing a fixed residual plus escalating payments per 100,000 downloads. But sources close to management believe the proposal won’t work financially when extended to the DGA and SAG.

Sources warn that the lack of other substantive movement from both sides could signal that the CEOs will decide soon that they’ve gone as far as they can go and put a take-it-or-leave-it package on the table. The problem for WGA leaders is that such a package may be unacceptable — in that it will be impossible to sell to a membership that’s had its expectations elevated after having been on strike for well over a month.

Pressures are mounting on both sides with most TV shows going dark, latenight ratings falling, the issuing of pinkslips continuing and the growing possibility that the upcoming pilot season will turn to shambles. Additionally, the week of Dec. 17 will see force majeure clauses go into effect, as it will mark six weeks since the strike started – allowing studios to start terminating unfavorable producer and writer deals.

At this point, even its opponents have given the WGA good marks for how it’s handled the execution of the strike, with a multitude of picket lines and public events to highlight the issues facing showbiz scribes — particularly on how they’re compensated for work on the Internet and other digital platforms. That’s led to surprisingly strong public support for the writers’ positions.

But management’s increasingly frustrated over how the WGA’s handled negotiations. Complaints have centered on slow response and the lack of focus on core issues — though labor insiders note that the AMPTP often can be just as slow.

“It sounds like they’re making a bit of headway on the issue of how to pay for streaming on TV, but I’m also hearing a lot of frustration from both sides,” one insider noted. “And the writers don’t have much time left at this point. If the strike goes past Christmas, the tide is going to turn against the writers in terms of the rest of the town perceiving them sympathetically.”

WGA demonstrations continued on both coasts Thursday, with the WGA East hitting HBO headquarters in Manhattan with over 200 supporters despite freezing temps. New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, Rob Morrow, B.D. Wong, Griffin Dunne, Evan Handler, Rachel Dratch, Seth Meyers, Tony Gilroy and Gilbert Gottfried were among the picketers.

In Los Angeles, where the guild has come up with a wide array of themed days, Thursday’s picket lines featured canines on the guild’s Bring Your Dog Day.

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