Writers ignore time zones, fall back into strike

A last-gasp attempt to stave off a strike by the WGA failed Sunday, and Hollywood writers launched plans to mount picket lines at studios and networks on both coasts.

A federal mediator who recently joined talks between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers convened a hasty last bargaining session Sunday amid speculation the AMPTP would deliver a new proposal to the guild. But despite that marathon session lasting well into Sunday night, when the parties emerged from the Sofitel hotel in West Hollywood it was clear the talks had broken down again.

One flashpoint involved the WGA East's refusal to halt the start of its strike after East Coast clocks struck midnight. Negotiations were still in session at the time, and the WGA West wasn't scheduled to strike for another three hours.

"Notwithstanding the fact that negotiations were ongoing, the WGA decided to start their strike in New York," AMPTP president Nick Counter said. "When we asked if they would 'stop the clock' for the purpose of delaying the strike to allow negotiations to continue, they refused.

"We made an attempt at meeting them in a number of their key areas including Internet streaming and jurisdiction in new media," Counter said. "Ultimately, the guild was unwilling to compromise on most of their major demands. It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action."

The WGA also issued a statement after the meeting broke up.

"Early today, the WGA completely withdrew its DVD proposal, which the companies said was a stumbling block," the guild said. "Yet the companies still insisted on ... no jurisdiction for most of new media writing, no economic proposal for the part of new media writing where they do propose to give coverage, Internet downloads at the DVD rate, no residual for streaming video of theatrical product, (and) a "promotional" proposal that allows them to reuse even complete movies or TV shows on any platform with no residual."

The WGA also slammed what it called a management proposal for a distribution window providing "free reuse on the Internet that makes a mockery of any residual."

The WGA and AMPTP have negotiated on and off since July 16, holding just 17 sessions through Sunday as they sought to replace a three-year film and TV contract that expired Wednesday. The most troublesome areas have been DVD and new-media residuals.

"Our position is simple and fair," WGA West president Patric Verrone said Friday after the WGAW board and WGA East Council voted to approve strike recommendations for 12:01 a.m. Monday. "When a writer's work generates revenue for the companies, that writer deserves to be paid."

On Saturday, Juan Carlos Gonzales of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service called the labor and management teams together for the Sunday session in an effort to forestall Monday's walkout.

It was also recently disclosed that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had connected with reps of the guild and the studio companies in an attempt to get talks back on track. The mayor met in person with Verrone and other labor execs Tuesday, and he subsequently discussed the situation with studios reps.

But it remains unclear how much muscle Villaraigosa might be willing to exert to force himself into the situation as an actual deal broker. For the present, any preliminary outreach involving the mayor's office appears to have fallen short.

One or more other interested parties also are serving as back-channel conduits for communications between the labor and management negotiators. It appears those include writer-producer John Wells, a former WGAW president who's well respected on both sides of the labor-management divide.

NBC chief Ben Silverman seemed to hint at just that Saturday when he introduced the "ER" executive producer at a party for the show's 300th episode by suggesting Wells "will save us all from the writers strike."

Asked about the reference later, Wells allowed, "It's not over yet."

He then huddled at length with "Law & Order" showrunner and former "ER" exec producer Neal Baer, who is a member of the WGA negotiating committee.

But for now, the immediate future will focus on the rollout of pickets.

Strike captains were coordinating teams to picket 14 sites throughout Los Angeles in shifts running 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1 p.m.-5 p.m. PST.

In Manhattan, WGAE leadership was expected to join a picket set for 9 a.m.-5 p.m. EST at NBC's headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza. The WGAE has also set a membership meeting for Wednesday night to update East Coast rank and file on the strike and why it's being mounted.

On Thursday night, WGAW brass told 3,000 writers it was recommending a strike action to the board. The AMPTP responded by suggesting the WGA had distorted the facts about bargaining to date.

"The WGA leadership continues to mischaracterize the current provisions for compensation in new media," Counter said Friday. "When a consumer pays to view a TV program or a feature film for a limited period of time, the writer gets a residual. When the consumer pays for a permanent download of a TV program or feature film, the writer gets a residual."

Writers do not receive extra compensation when ad-supported programming is streamed over the Internet for free.

WGAE president Michael Winship said Friday the decision to strike was not one "we take lightly."

With the membership meeting set for Thursday and the board and council meetings Friday, guild brass decided it would be better to hold off picketing until Monday rather than to mount a strike action over the weekend.

The last major strike by Hollywood writers was in 1988, when a 22-week WGA work stoppage effectively shut down the town. Economic impact on the L.A. economy was estimated to run as high as $500 million.

"Our sense is we can do some economic damage immediately," WGA negotiating committee chair John Bowman said.

The point of the strike is to "inflict as much damage as quickly as possible" in order to bring about a resolution," Bowman added.

Picketing plans were disseminated to strike captains but details of timing and location were closely guarded over the weekend. Studio security was boosted at lots all around town as soon as the strike decision was announced.

Guild rank and file again distributed flyers at studio and networks sites Friday, following similar earlier "informational" efforts.

A WGAE flyer read in part: "The studios and networks make billions from the content we create. All we want is our fair share. They have refused. We don't want to strike, but we must defend the standards of our profession. We ask for your understanding and your support."

Meanwhile, with writers now setting up picket lines, some will start wondering anew what the DGA will do.

The DGA, like SAG, is under contract until June 30. But many expect the directors to start early talks with the AMPTP on its own new film and TV deal.

If successful in such talks, a DGA agreement could set a template that the other guilds are effectively forced to follow--perhaps including terms on DVD and the Internet. A well-placed source confirmed strategy meetings are afoot already at the DGA, which has formed a working negotiations committee.

One thing under discussion: whether to pick up the phone and ring the AMPTP about starting early contract talks. The source suggested that could happen sometime this month.


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