Writers heading back to work at studio

The Writers Guild of America and United Artists have agreed to sign an interim deal, allowing striking feature writers to begin work for the studio — and opening the door for other indies such as the Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate to follow suit.

Official announcement of the WGA-UA deal is expected today. The deal won’t include MGM, the majority owner of UA, and likely will mirror terms in the interim pact the WGA inked last week with David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants.

For UA toppers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, it’s a major declaration of independence from MGM and underlines that the duo — who have a 35% stake in UA — have the final say in operations. The deal affords the revived studio an opportunity to move forward on projects after initially stumbling out of the gate with “Lions for Lambs.”

UA raised $500 million last summer from Merrill Lynch for financing of 15-18 films over the next five years. UA’s next film, WWII drama “Valkyrie,” has completed production and is set for release next fall.

Sources said UA’s My Lai drama “Pinkville,” to be toplined by Bruce Willis and directed by Oliver Stone, won’t be revived. That project hit a roadblock due to script problems after the strike started and would be difficult to restart as Willis has moved on to another project.

Though MGM had no comment about the deal, sources said over the weekend that MGM topper Harry Sloan has opposed the UA interim deal and added that it was highly unlikely that MGM would break ranks from the congloms and sign its agreement before the strike ends.

The Worldwide Pants and UA deals are part of the WGA’s strategy to “divide and conquer” the industry by negotiating individual agreements in the wake of the collapse of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on Dec. 7, when the AMPTP demanded that the WGA remove six of its proposals as a condition of continuing negotiations. No new WGA talks are set, and the Directors Guild of America may announce the start of its own negotiations with the AMPTP this week.

The WGA’s efforts to sign interim deals are designed to create pressure on the AMPTP to return to the table by delivering the message that the WGA’s proposals are reasonable enough for indies to sign — particularly in the prickly area of Internet residuals.

Lionsgate and TWC are viewed as the most likely to next sign interim deals with the guild. None of the parties commented Sunday, but WGA officials have been seeking agreements with both.

The WGA delivered a proposal for an interim deal to Bob and Harvey Weinstein about two weeks ago. Sources said that if the TWC deal — currently undergoing scrutiny with Weinstein Co. lawyers — goes through, it would not do so for several more days.

Such a deal would not be surprising for the Weinsteins, who have been strong supporters of screenwriters. The brothers formed the indie operation two years ago after a dozen years of working for Disney.

For Lionsgate, a pact with the WGA could be more complicated than for UA or TWC since the company also has TV operations. Lionsgate’s been in an expansion mode, taking stakes in Mandate Pictures, Break.com and Roadside Attractions and setting a $400 million, 23-picture theatrical slate financing agreement.

The WGA’s deal with Worldwide Pants deal allowed “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” to begin airing last week on CBS with writers aboard and no pickets outside the studio. Specific terms of the Worldwide Pants deal include the guild’s most recent proposals for new-media compensation in areas such as Web streaming and paid downloads.

The WGA plans on continue picketing “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and other latenight talkers today both in Burbank and in New York. Full-scale picketing resumes at other major studio lots in Los Angeles after a three-week break, although the guild has opted to stop picketing at Sony.

In another development, the WGA attempted unsuccessfully Friday to persuade the Los Angeles Board of Public Works to stop issuing four permits for production companies shooting on city property. The panel also turned down an alternative proposal for a binding requirement that the WGA be allowed to meet with the production crews for 20 minutes, but it did OK a non-binding resolution.

The AMPTP and WGA then took potshots at each other. “Although the WGA was rebuffed by the L.A. Board of Public Works, the WGA’s attempt to derail production on films with completed scripts — and thus to throw hundreds and hundreds more people out of work — shows that the WGA’s organizers are continuing to do whatever they can to make good on their boast to ‘wreak havoc’ on our industry,” the AMPTP said.

The WGA responded by blaming the majors: “The WGA is committed to bringing this strike to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible. The big media companies that walked away from the bargaining table and continue to refuse to negotiate shoulder the responsibility for damaging the entertainment industry and the Los Angeles economy.”

(Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)

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