Town seeing more jobs vanish each day

Today could be the beginning of the end of the three-month writers strike.

Informal negotiations between WGA leaders and several moguls are set to start today with the goal of mimicking the process used by the Directors Guild of America to reach its deal last week — laying the groundwork and sorting out potential deal breakers prior to going into formal bargaining.

With the town seeing more jobs vanish each day, the talks will be scrutinized microscopically along with the details of the DGA pact. Even the most optimistic believe it will take at least two weeks to work out a Writers Guild of America deal — a scenario that would allow the Oscars to proceed Feb. 24 without WGA picket lines.

Screen Actors Guild topper Doug Allen warned Monday that thesps will not cross WGA picket lines to attend the Oscar ceremonies at the Kodak Theater. And he downplayed optimism about the DGA deal being used to reach pacts with the WGA and SAG.

“The rush to anoint this agreement as the ‘solution’ for the industry is premature,” Allen said. “Without more specific details, the DGA/AMPTP agreement cannot be authoritatively described as good or bad; much of it is simply unknown.”

The two front-and-center players at today’s talks are expected to be WGA negotiating committee chief John Bowman and News Corp. chairman Peter Chernin. WGA West prexy Patric Verrone and exec director David Young, Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger and CBS topper Leslie Moonves are all expected to be involved.

Neither side confirmed the timing of the get-together, and both maintained no-comment responses Monday. But optimists see the lack of polarizing rhetoric — previously employed with vigor — as a sign that both the guild and the majors want to give the informal talks a chance to succeed.

Meanwhile, the WGA West participated Monday in a parade in Los Angeles honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and picketed at NBC in Burbank.

Though both sides mostly maintained silence throughout the holiday weekend, that will change today. The WGA will resume picketing at NBC Burbank and at Paramount, with the latter tied to honoring King. The WGA East will stage a rally at Gramercy Park in New York featuring past award winners in conjunction with the morning’s announcement of Oscar nominations.

Speculation at Sundance included the rumor that several more indies will sign WGA interim deals — which feature better terms than those in the DGA deal — as early as this week if there’s no significant progress made toward a deal.

The guild has announced 10 such deals in less than a month, but many key players such as Overture, Lionsgate and Nu Image/Millennium remain possibilities.

“We’re keeping all our options open,” Overture CEO Chris McGurk told Daily Variety at Sundance. “I’d love to be able to find a way to make a deal with the WGA. The strike is not good for anybody. It’s a careful decision; we don’t have to do a deal with them yet. We have seven movies in 2008 and five finished scripts ready to go; we’ll pick up a movie or two. I’d love to see the strike resolved. We don’t have to rush.”

Execs with the revamped Summit Entertainment have insisted they will not sign an interim deal.

Lobbying behind the scenes kicked into high gear Monday over the critical issue of whether the outline of the DGA’s tentative deal is good enough for the WGA to accept — even though it’s believed the actual master agreement has not been made available yet to the WGA.

Top execs conducted back-channel efforts throughout the weekend to convince writers of the merits of the DGA deal. And prominent screenwriters and showrunners pressured WGA leaders to make a deal with the DGA terms.

But many writers have contended that it’s crucial to allow leaders enough time to evaluate the specifics of the directors’ pact. And some have already concluded that the DGA conceded too much in such areas as a 17-day window for free exhibition of streamed TV shows, and they insist that the WGA needs to stick to its demand for a flat residual based on 2.5% of distributors’ gross for all new-media formats.

SAG’s Allen urged caution in assessing the DGA deal until specific questions can be answered.

“We look forward to the answers to these questions and hope that anyone judging this new agreement will also get more information before recommending this deal to any other group,” he added. “Screen Actors Guild is encouraged that the Writers Guild of America and AMPTP employers are scheduled to meet this week, and we wish them well. We hope that the employers’ return to the bargaining table signals their willingness to engage in meaningful negotiation until a fair deal is reached for writers.”

Formal negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP collapsed on Dec. 7 when the majors demanded that the guild drop six proposals as a condition of continuing the bargaining.

(Anne Thompson contributed to this report.)

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