After stretching Hollywood’s nerves to the breaking point, writers and studios have agreed to extend contract talks for nine hours and resume negotiations at noon today.

The announcement at Writers Guild of America West headquarters came just before 3 a.m., after the expiration of the WGA contract following a 17-hour marathon day and night of negotiations.

Although the extension does not eliminate the possibility of a much-feared strike, the move may reduce its probability since it indicates negotiators were able to find enough middle ground to keep from walking away from the table.

Neither side gave any details as to progress of the talks other than saying many isuses were being discussed and that the expired contract remained in effect by federal labor law. Reps also gave no indication how much longer the negotiations will last.

Speculation surrounding the talks, which has been fueled by an all-encompassing news blackout, took a positive turn Tuesday with rumors that both sides had moved enough to begin crafting a tentative deal.

The WGA had told members earlier this week that it expected that two major developments would take place Tuesday — a final proposal from companies and a response to that proposal from the WGA.

But sources also indicated that an extension could be granted if both sides saw significant momentum at the bargaining table.

The two sides had maintained a news blackout since talks resumed April 17 but speculation emerged during the day that negotiators were moving toward a tentative settlement on economic issues, which had been concentrated on residuals.

Those rumors gained speed when the CEOs, including Warner’s Barry Meyer, arrived for a meeting on creative rights demands such as expanded access to sets and limits on directors using the “A Film By” credit.

Many veteran Hollywood trackers have assumed that WGA negotiators would not be able to find a settlement that would be acceptable to their members. For more than a year, the WGA leaders had campaigned steadfastly that the time had come for the companies to modernize the residuals formulas for video/DVD, cable, foreign TV and Fox Network.

Pessimism had been deepened after the first six weeks of negotiations collapsed on March 1. CEOs contended that their profit margins were shrinking and that the WGA’s demands did not take into account the nation’s economic slowdown. Before negotiations resumed on April 17, the gap between offers was $100 million.

But both sides also maintained a cordial relationship, praised each other’s professionalism and refrained from any personal attacks.

At 11 p.m., the talks attracted a brief candlelight vigil from half a dozen members of the writing staff of the Fox TV show “Undeclared.”

“The Guild members we’ve talked to are very supportive of the leadership,” said writer Nick Stoller.