HOLLYWOOD — Closely-watched negotiations between Hollywood writers and studios moved past the contract deadline early today with no indication of whether a settlement was imminent.

“The talks are continuing and we’re working very hard to reach an agreement,” said Cheryl Rhoden, spokeswoman for the Writers Guild of America during a brief news conference shortly after the 12:01 a.m. contract expiration.

Rhodan said she could not disclose any further details about the talks and then adjourned the news conference.

Eight news vans camped outside the talks at Writers Guild of America West headquarters in Hollywood; several “strike parties” were staged during the evening while awaiting the outcome.

Reps of the WGA and the producers, who met until 11:30 the night before, began talks at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Pizza was delivered for the dinner break.

At press time, neither side had issued a comment, despite the approach of contract expiration at 12:01 a.m. today.

At some point late Tuesday night or early today, both sides were expected to make one of three announcements: a tentative deal, continuation of talks through a contract extension, or an impasse.

If talks have reached impasse, it would be the first step toward a strike if WGA members reject the companies’ offer and approve a strike authorization.

Under that scenario, the Screen Actors Guild is widely expected to kick the strike into high gear by walking out following its June 30 contract expiration though SAG insists it does not want to strike.

Rumors persisted Tuesday that the WGA contract would be extended up to a month. But many observers believe an extension would be limited to a week at most for two reasons — the networks need to set fall schedules by mid-May and the companies need to begin talks soon with SAG.

Rumors of a settlement were fueled Tuesday as several CEOs participated in a meeting on creative rights demands such as improved writers’ access to sets and limits on directors taking the “A Film By” credit.

That development sparked speculation that both sides had moved far enough on the more difficult economic issues to start crafting a tentative agreement with a possible renegotiation summit next year on still-developing formats such as DVD and satellite TV.

But other sources warned a strike remained inevitable due to hardline stances on residuals for video/DVD and movies on demand with blame often assigned to Disney and Fox. Speculation bubbled up that the WGA would hold strike authorization meetings as early as Friday, although no official confirmation had been received.

‘Cautiously optimistic’

“I am cautiously optimistic, although a lot of people expect to be at an authorization meeting Friday,” one scribe on the U lot declared.

“It’s typical that negotiations go right up to the deadline,” said George Kirgo, WGAW prexy during the five-month writers strike in 1988. “I don’t expect there to be a strike, but that may be mostly wishful thinking, hoping that the companies don’t make the mistake of pushing us to the wall.”

$100 million gap

Before the current round of negotiations resumed April 17, the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers had not bridged a $100 million gap in proposals for a three-year deal.

Many WGA members, when asked about the talks in recent days, have noted that the gap is comparable to the annual salary of conglom toppers such as the $163 million taken home last year by AOL Time Warner’s Gerald Levin.

WGAW board member Bryce Zabel, speaking in the makeshift press room at the talks, called the exec compensation figures “staggering.”

“So we’re not here to ask for anything that is unreasonable,” Zabel said. “We’re not here to bankrupt the companies. Nobody in the Writers Guild wants to provoke a strike.”

Kirgo described WGA members as “apprehensive but fairly firm,” with the younger scribes the most concerned. “People who have not been through this before can find it terrifying, while veterans have a ‘this too shall pass’ attitude about it,” he added.

About half of the WGA’s 11,500 members have joined the Guild since the 1988 strike. That work stoppage, which delayed the fall TV season, was the longest in Hollywood history until the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television Artists staged a six-month walkout against the advertising industry last year.

Waiting for final offer

Earlier this week, WGA leaders had told members that they expected companies to make a final offer at some point Tuesday and promised they would respond to the offer prior to the contract expiration.

Observers believe WGA West prexy John Wells will emerge as the pivotal figure in the dispute. Wells, exec producer of “ER” and “The West Wing,” was elected in 1999 on a pledge to get tougher at the bargaining table.

“John Wells will be able to sell the membership on whatever the negotiating committee decides,” one talent agent predicted.