A last-minute rewrite?

Writers, studios in 11th-hour bid to avert strike

Studio reps and WGA negotiators bargained late into Sunday night in a last-minute bid to avert a strike, even as film and television writers prepared to mount picket lines at studios and networks on both coasts this morning.

The WGA East was officially on strike at 12:01 EST, though no picket lines were to go up until 9 a.m. EST.

Federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzales, who recently joined talks between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, summoned the parties to the Sunday session. The talks, which began at 10 a.m., were held at an undisclosed location, apparently to avoid an onslaught of media attention. Neither side issued updates during the bargaining.

The duration of Sunday's talks raised hopes that the strike could be averted or delayed, but there was no indication that would happen as the East Coast deadline passed.

The WGA and AMPTP have negotiated on and off since July 16, seeking to replace a three-year film and TV contract that expired Wednesday. The most troublesome area has 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 this morning. "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 a Sunday session in a last-ditch effort to forestall today's walkout.

It also was 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 with Verrone and other labor execs Tuesday, and he subsequently discussed the situation with studio 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.

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 today. The sites listed as targets on the WGA Web included CBS Radford Studios, CBS Television City, Culver Studios, Disney Studios, Fox Studios, Hollywood Center Studios, NBC Burbank, Prospect Studios, Paramount Studios / Raleigh Studios Hollywood, Raleigh Studios Manhattan Beach, Sony Pictures Studios, Sunset Gower Studios, Universal Studios, Warner Bros Studios.

On the East Coast, picket lines were to go up at NBC's Rockerfeller Plaza headquarters, the first in a planned series of job actions targteting the major media conglomerates.

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 today 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 members 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.

Leslie Simmons and Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.