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Strike Fears Grow as WGA, Studios Resume Contract Talks

UPDATE, 11:40 a.m. PDT — Contract talks between the Writers Guild of America and the major studios are  resuming after a 17-day break that has heightened anxiety in Hollywood about the possibility of a strike.

The chairs of the WGA’s negotiating committee — Chip Johannessen, Chris Keyser, Billy Ray — sent a brief message out to members saying that they probably won’t be saying much this week:

“Dear Fellow Members, Today your Negotiating Committee is returning to the bargaining table with the AMPTP. Our goal remains to get a fair contract for writers. You probably won’t hear from us during the days to come. We will communicate with you directly if there is a significant development, or we will see you at the member meetings scheduled April 18 and 19.”

“In the meantime, we wanted to let you know how much we appreciate the support you have given the Negotiating Committee. It means a lot to us. We are resolved and hopeful that with your support we can achieve a fair deal.”

Two weeks of initial talks ended March 23 amid plenty of finger-pointing. The WGA initiated a strike authorization vote and accused the companies of proposing rollbacks to the health plan and offering “barely a single hard-dollar gain for writers.” The question of whether the film and TV industry will face a broad-based work stoppage for the first time in 10 years has been a dominant subject of conversation across the biz for the past two weeks.

The companies returned fire by accusing the WGA of opportunism. “The WGA broke off negotiations at an early stage in the process in order to secure a strike vote rather than directing its efforts at reaching an agreement at the bargaining table,” the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in a March 24 statement. “Keeping the industry working is in everyone’s best interests, and we are ready to return to negotiations when they are.”

It took over a week for the WGA and AMPTP to agree to resume talks. In the meantime, the WGA had gone to its members to explain why they should vote for strike authorization — with voting starting next week — then warned top media buyers alerting them to the possibility of a strike on May 2, just in time to complicate programming decisions for the fall season and the summer upfront advertising sales period. The WGA’s current master film and TV contract with the major studios expires May 1.

The letter to media buyers said, “Our current proposals would cost a total of $178 million over the entire industry. The combined cost to the six largest firms is $117 million.”

On April 5, the WGA reached out to shareholders of Time Warner and AT&T warning them of the impact a strike could have on Time Warner earnings and the pending $85.4 billion merger of the media giants.

“A writer’s strike could undermine AT&T’s primary reason for acquiring Time Warner, which is ownership of compelling content,” WGA West director David Young wrote in the letter that was obtained by Variety. “A strike could also delay any potential shareholder benefits from the acquisition.”

The guild is asking for raises in minimums and script fees in an effort to offset changes in the nature of TV series production that have hit writers’ earnings. It’s pushing for parity for the payment structures for those working on shows for cable and SVOD outlets, where fees remain lower than those for traditional broadcast network TV.

The WGA’s aggressive PR efforts last week created some dismay in Hollywood since the tough public posturing may make it harder for the sides to reach compromises on economic issues.

An informed source indicated that it there’s any progress at the bargaining table, there will likely be an effort to reach a short-term extension of the current contract to give the sides more time to hammer out a deal without a work stoppage. Guild leaders were said to be caught off guard in the weeks prior to the March 13 start of bargaining by the level of anger and frustration expressed at by the WGA rank-and-file members at compensation structures and working conditions.

The talks will resume at the AMPTP headquarters in Encino. They’re set to run through Friday, although the Passover holiday is likely to take some participants out of the room on Tuesday.

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