WGA playing nice for right now

Scribes downplaying likelihood of walkout

Strike fever hasn’t hit Hollywood yet, even with contract talks between writers and studios well under way.

With negotiations entering their fourth day today at the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers HQ in Encino, the Writers Guild of America has been holding back on significant preparation for a possible work stoppage.

The current low-key strategy contrasts sharply with the 2001 approach, when the WGA publicly warned members to start saving money for a possible strike, assiduously courted the agent community to explain its agenda and held multiple news conferences. And it quietly set up a strike headquarters, tapped dozens of strike captains and even designed a strike logo.

But the emerging consensus in recent days is that there’s not much appetite for a walkout when the WGA contract expires May 2 — even with the scribes’ desire for a bigger slice of DVD residuals, improved health insurance and jurisdiction over reality TV.

During a recent get-together with writers, one WGA West exec was asked specifically why the Guild appeared to be so much less active in prepping for a strike than it was three years ago. The exec insisted the WGA hasn’t discarded the possibility of a work stoppage and that its 12,000 members can be mobilized much more quickly than in 2001 because of widespread use of the Internet.

WGA West president Daniel Petrie Jr. sought to downplay the possibility of a work stoppage last week in a message to members, saying, “While the potential of a strike is our ultimate leverage in any negotiation, we are not going into these negotiations seeking a strike.”

Labor expert Daniel Mitchell, a UCLA professor of public policy and management, said the WGA’s strategy appears designed to avoid repeating the 2001 scenario, when studios scrambled to stockpile during the first half of the year and then pulled back sharply for the rest of the year.

“Three years ago, Hollywood wound up having the effects of a strike without actually having a strike,” Mitchell added. “So avoiding visible preparations is a way of avoiding that consequence, which both sides have an interest in doing.”

The pace of feature production hasn’t shifted significantly in recent weeks while TV has boomed due to pilot season. But nervousness persists with producers and tenpercenteries contemplating contingency plans in recognition that the WGA’s low-key approach hasn’t eliminated the possibility of a strike, particularly if the studios take an uncompromising stance at the bargaining table.

Both sides have taken swipes at each other, with the WGA warning members to not be swayed by “media moguls pleading poverty” and asserting that entertainment occupies a “permanent, unquestioned” place in consumers’ budgets.

AMPTP prexy Nick Counter has labeled the WGA’s pattern of demands “a recipe for disaster”; execs have contended that DVD revenues are essential to keeping both feature and TV production financially viable, in light of soaring film costs and the erosion of network audiences.

Additionally, the town remains rattled over the recent instability at the WGA West, which has included the resignations of Victoria Riskin and Charles Holland from the presidency and the U.S. Dept. of Labor announcing it will supervise the next election. Observors believe such turmoil boosts the clout of those who might push for a strike.

WGA leaders will hear from the rank-and-file with members-only meetings set for next Wednesday, April 20 and April 22.

During the 2001 negotiations talks went three days past the expiration before a settlement was reached. The Guild never took a strike authorization vote but had placed venues such as the Hollywood Palladium, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on notice as sites for a strike authorization meeting.

Most of the activity at the current negotiations, which launched Monday, has been in committee and caucus meetings. Negotiations are expected to break Friday for Easter weekend and resume Monday.

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