11th hour is at hand; talks go on

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The first day of mediated talks between the WGA and studio reps seemed less acrimonious than some past sessions, but strike prognosticators were still working overtime in Hollywood on Tuesday.

The parties didn't break until after 6 p.m. and agreed to have at it again Wednesday, with the 10 a.m. session in Encino the last before the guild's contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers expires.

Yet even though WGA brass is authorized to call a strike at any time after midnight, they won't do so until at least after they hold a membership meeting 7 p.m. Thursday downtown at the Los Angeles Convention Center. There also appeared to be a gathering consensus that negotiations might stretch into next week.

"Both sides worked on modifications to their proposals, (and) the guild indicated that they were preparing a comprehensive package and would be ready to present it tomorrow," AMPTP president Nick Counter said after the latest bargaining session. "We are committed to a fair, reasonable and sensible agreement that is beneficial for everyone. However, opportunities do not come without challenges.

"We will not agree to any proposals that impose unreasonable restrictions and unjustified costs," he said. "We will not ignore the challenges of today's economic realities, the shifts in audience taste and viewing habits and the unpredictability of still-evolving technology."

The lattermost comment seemed a clear reference to emerging Internet-based businesses, but it was unclear whether the parties had discussed the WGA's demand for greater compensation from those revenue streams. The other big question that hasn't been discussed in much detail involves the guild's demand for more lucrative DVD residuals.

The WGA put out a statement late Tuesday saying "No significant progress" had been made in the latest session.

Interested observers throughout the region -- from top execs and creative professionals to location caterers and even the corner dry cleaners -- are scrutinizing eleventh-hour developments with keen interest. No industryite is without an opinion on the prospect of the first big WGA strike in 19 years.

"It sure feels like it, sadly," one highly placed insider said. "In my mind, it always comes down to the fact that most of the membership doesn't work anyway, and they get to be just the same as everybody else for a day or a week or a month or more if there's a strike. They get to walk a picket line and vent their anger."

But some believe that cooler heads might prevail.

"The guys who have been around a long time don't believe there will be a strike because it's too soon and would be bad business for the WGA," a veteran negotiations-watcher said. "But the younger ones, especially the agents, say we're dealing with this guy (WGA West president) Patric Verrone who is seemingly a shoot-from-the hip, untested guy."

Verrone insisted Monday that he remains hopeful a strike can be averted, with the matter hinging on "what kind of offer is on the table at expiration."

Most specifically, management must do something to move along discussions of the Internet and DVD residuals, he stressed.

WGA East president Michael Winship also displayed a go-slow attitude on a writers strike.

"Winston Churchill said, 'To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,' " Winship said. "I can get behind that."

Recalled John McLean, former exec director of the WGAW: "In 2001, everybody in town thought we were going on strike, and I knew for a week that we weren't. But there were a couple of things to tie up."

The last big work stoppage for writers came in 1988. That's when a WGA strike shut down Hollywood for five months; it followed by three years a two-week writers walkout.

Estimates of regional economic losses from the '88 strike ran as high as $500 million. The industry impact was so pervasive that many suggested afterward that neither side had won in the end -- which negotiating vets say is often the case with protracted labor strife.

"The 1985 WGA strike was a strike that never should have occurred," said Tarzana attorney Stan Landes, then an assistant executive director at the guild. "There weren't really any issues (except for) the issue of producers' gross and how it should be defined. And that should have been arbitrated."

Yet more militant elements of guild leadership insisted on a work stoppage, he said, and the town shut down for two weeks. "It was disastrous for the guild, and the WGA was forced to capitulate on most of its demands," Landes said.

Meanwhile, even highly placed labor-community sources said they have been kept in the dark about the WGA's strategy on a possible work stoppage.

"They've kept that very close to the vest ... which pisses me off, to tell you the truth," one such source said.

Theoretical strike preparations abound -- from a war room being established at WGAW headquarters in Los Angeles to a call for strike captains on the guild's Web site.

"Every guild member needs to be involved and informed," the site notes. "To do that, we need more WGAW picket/contract captains. Captains communicate with fellow members, identify and recruit other member leaders and mobilize fellow members to participate in actions to support the campaign for a good and fair contract."

WGA reps passed out informational fliers Tuesday to employees entering studio lots.

Landes said the WGA has shown broad solidarity since its negotiations with the AMPTP began July 16.

"The difference between 1985 and now is that in those days, people who worked in television didn't see any upside in the videocassette controversy of the time," the former WGAW exec recounted. "Now they do, as well as with Internet downloads and so on. So the guild is potentially more united than ever before, primarily because the TV people are now receiving residuals for DVDs."

The guild seems to be taking a hard line on new-media compensation because rank and file has never considered its formula for home video residuals fair, he added.

"If the guild is taking a hard line, it's largely because of the tough treatment they've gotten from this management group in the past," Landes said. "You know what they say, 'Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.'"

The studios' strike preparations also seem to be well advanced, having long ago accelerated film and TV productions while also stocking up on written materials.

"The studios have so much spec scripts stockpiled that they don't have to buy another script for a year," estimated Frederick James, whose James Co. manages literary talent including Corey Bleekman ("Free Willy") and other screenwriters.
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