WGA, AMPTP set table for new talks

Will there be a holiday gift for striking writers and studios … or a lump of coal?

Talk of next week’s negotiations predominated Tuesday in Hollywood, where the Writers Guild of America drew about 4,000 supporters at an energetic, milelong Labor Solidarity march along Hollywood Blvd. and subsequent rally in front of the Chinese Theater.

“We’re entering the holiday season — a season of charity and of Scrooge,” noted John Bowman, chair of the guild’s negotiating committee. “Please, AMPTP, don’t be typecast,” he urged. “Let’s get this done by Christmas.”

While the guild was marshalling support from fellow unions, major moguls took a mildly conciliatory step Tuesday as they sent out pre-Thanksgiving emails to staffers — notable for keeping its criticism of the WGA on a measured level. CBS Corp. chief exec Leslie Moonves said that while the two sides still have substantial differences, “We continue to believe that with hard work, patience and understanding from both sides, they can be overcome.”

Moonves’ email message was almost identical to a letter Warner Bros. distributed to staffers, indicating that the CEOs apparently agreed on the basic structure of the letter. Each conglom then customized the ending.

Still, the missives contained plenty of grist for pessimists. Moonves warned that CBS won’t make a deal that doesn’t make good financial sense — a refrain that’s been sounded repeatedly by AMPTP companies in their complaint that new-media business models are unproven.

“Suffice it to say that while we are committed to hammering out a fair deal with our WGA members, CBS cannot make an agreement that places our company at a disadvantage or makes it impossible for us to meet our commitments to our many constituencies — other employees, shareholders, advertisers, the producers with whom we work and the public that these days is constantly redefining the way they experience our programming,” Moonves said.

“The producing organizations and the writers who are so integral to our business are both facing the same challenge. We live in a new-media world, and all of us must wrestle with the 21st century realities of our business. Going forward, we must work together to craft a new contract that is fair and keeps our business strong.”

In Gotham on Tuesday, the WGA drew nearly 200 supporters to a rally at Sony Plaza on Madison Avenue — despite persistent cold and rain. That prompted the chant: “We’re wet, we’re cold, but we’re not gonna fold.”

Attendees included Paul Haggis, Julianna Margulies, Chris Elliott, Gilbert Gottfried, Robert Klein and Seth Meyers, along with members of the writing staffs of “Late Show With David Letterman,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.”

On Hollywood Blvd., Bowman stressed that the WGA’s new-media proposals would have cost the companies less over the three years than the $82 million severance package for one unnamed mogul. And he noted that companies have an “enormous” strategic advantage in exploiting the Internet — “us.”

Bowman cited the numerous strike-related videos crafted for free by WGA members.

“Think what you could do if we got paid and you could hire attractive SAG members,” he added. “We are your partners and we will conquer the Internet – just like we did talkies.”

With both sides agreeing last week to a news blackout as part of the resumption of talks, Bowman and WGA West prexy Patric Verrone were notably more limited in their criticism of the AMPTP than in other recent public appearance.

Both opted for broad strokes rather than specifics of what’s on the table. At one point, Verrone declared, “What we’re fighting for is our future – and that of the entire industry.”

Verrone launched the afternoon march at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Ivar Avenue with a historical reference.

“Seventy-five years ago, 10 writers met at the Knickerbocker Hotel near here to form a union with teeth,” he said. “We are here today to show our teeth. What that means is that we’re here to walk down Hollywood Boulevard and smile.”

Verrone then introduced singer Alicia Keys, who performed two songs to loud cheers from the back of a parked truck. He then started the march to the Chinese.

Verrone launched the rally 45 minutes later by thanking other unions and politicians for their support. He singled out Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards for walking the picket line last week.Other speakers included writer Akiva Goldsman and thesp Sandra Oh, who suggested that writers boycott the congloms via such tactics as stayiong away from Disneyland. “You need to speak the language that they understand,” she added.

Teamster Local 399 secretary-treasurer topper Leo Reed, who had urged individual drivers not to cross picket lines, elicited loud cheers and praised the WGA West for its assertiveness.

“The only thing the companies care about is getting kicked in the ass,” he added. “You’re acting like a militant union and I’m saying that’s good.”

The rallies will stand as the WGA’s last strike-related demonstrations until the guild’s talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers resume on Monday.

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