Pact allows screenwriters to work for studio

The Writers Guild of America and United Artists have sealed an interim deal that will allow screenwriters to work for the revived studio and pave the way for completion of its next film, WWII thriller “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise.

That pic has a major battle scene still to shoot. Its release was recently pushed back from June 27 to Oct. 3.

The deal will also allow the studio to move forward with other pics to fill its pipeline. UA has plenty of firepower to go forward, although there’s nothing in its pipeline near production. It raised $500 million last summer from Merrill Lynch for the financing of 15-18 films over the next five years.

One leading lit agent said he’d like to see UA rewarded for reviving the town’s dormant feature development process, adding, “I’m hoping they wind up with five great projects.”

The guild and UA noted in Monday’s announcement that the deal doesn’t involve MGM, the majority shareholder of UA. MGM — one of the congloms directly involved with WGA negotiations via the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers — issued a response Monday that distanced itself from UA’s move.

“MGM understands the desire of United Artists to resume its business activities, but respectfully disagrees with its decision to sign an interim agreement with the WGA,” it said. “MGM remains committed to working with AMPTP member companies to reach a fair and reasonable agreement with the WGA that positions everyone in our industry for success in a rapidly changing marketplace.”

Speculation as to which indies might sign the next WGA interim deal has centered on a diverse array of players, including Lionsgate, Lucasfilm, Nu Image/Millennium, Overture Films and the Weinstein Co., companies that have good reason to fill their slates.

The WGA has approached a wide variety of indies with the goal of inking interim deals as part of its “divide and conquer” strategy — designed to portray the guild’s proposals as being reasonable enough for indies to sign — particularly in the tricky area of Internet residuals.

“The UA deal may open the floodgates,” one indie exec noted. “It certainly makes it easier for the guild to have substantive conversations with companies.”

Lionsgate, Lucasfilm, Nu Image and TWC had not commented on the possibility of an interim deal. But year-old Overture, which has been ramping up production with the goal of producing up to a dozen pics a year, indicated it would be open to the scenario.

“We’re in this business to make movies and support the creative community,” an Overture spokesman said. “We welcome any solution that is fair for all parties concerned and gets the writers back to work.”

Were TWC to make an interim deal, it would be able to revive “Nine,” which stalled after the strike started, due to the need for revisions to Michael Tolkin’s script. Director Ron Marshall and thesps Javier Bardem, Marion Cotilland, Penelope Cruz and Sophia Loren remain attached to the musical.

But at least two indie companies have indicated they won’t seek such pacts. A rep for Summit Entertainment, which has been expanding to become a full-service studio over the past year, said Monday the company will not make an interim deal with the WGA.

The WGA and UA made the widely expected announcement Monday afternoon. Terms were not disclosed other than to say the pact “addresses the issues important to writers, including new media” but the agreement’s expected to mirror the interim deal signed two weeks ago by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants.

UA toppers Cruise and Paula Wagner have a 35% stake in UA and the final say in operations. The deal affords UA — which was revived in late 2006 by Cruise and Wagner — an opportunity to move forward on projects after initially stumbling out of the gate with “Lions for Lambs.”

The WGA touted the deal Monday as a way to start getting the town back to business as usual.

“United Artists has lived up to its name,” said WGA West president Patric Verrone in a statement. “UA and the Writers Guild came together and negotiated seriously. The end result is that we have a deal that will put people back to work.”

Verrone and WGA East prexy Michael Winship said in a message to members that the UA deal will start a chain reaction.

“We expect this deal to encourage other companies, especially large employers, to seek and reach agreements with us,” they said. “We look forward to more e-mails like this one in the near future.”

Wagner, UA’s CEO, invoked the history of the studio, launched 86 years ago by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford.

“This agreement is important, unique and makes good business sense for United Artists,” Wagner said in a statement. “In keeping with the philosophy of its original founders, artists who sought to create a studio in which artists and their creative visions could flourish, we are pleased to have reached an agreement with the WGA.”

The AMPTP poured cold water on the announcement Monday, asserting that the UA deal doesn’t resolve the problem of reaching an overall agreement with the town’s scribes.

“One-off deals do nothing to bring the WGA closer to a permanent solution for working writers,” the AMPTP said in a statement. “These interim agreements are sideshows and mean only that some writers will be employed at the same time other writers will be picketing. In the end, until the people in charge at WGA decide to focus on the main event rather than these sideshows, the economic harm being caused by the strike will continue.”

The WGA’s deal with Worldwide Pants 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 granted similar interim deals during the 1988 strike after initially resisting, and it eventually signed interim contracts with more than 150 independent companies. The late Johnny Carson tried to negotiate an interim pact but was unsuccessful, and he returned to the air two months into the strike with his own monologue, without writers; Letterman followed more than a month later.

Networks avoided using producers with interim agreements, and the WGA eventually sued the AMPTP on antitrust grounds before the strike was settled after five months.

(Michael Fleming contributed to this report)

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