Now it's untied Artists

Other indies may break ranks to seek WGA waivers

MGM's indie arm United Artists is making its own separate labor peace with the WGA and likely will unveil today an interim contract with the guild for its film projects, though the deal apparently comes too late to get Oliver Stone's "Pinkville" back on track.

The agreement with the Tom Cruise- and Paula Wagner-topped UA marks the first film company to hammer out a pact with the strikers, allowing the indie outfit to get cracking on new script development and execute any necessary rewrites on active projects.

The WGA recently signed a similar work agreement with David Letterman's production company Worldwide Pants, allowing striking writers of its late-night talk shows to get back to work. Other indies also have been approached about interim pacts, with Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co. among those actively reviewing a WGA proposal.

The Weinstein Co. is leaning toward inking a deal with the WGA, but it's unlikely the film indie will jump into an interim agreement unless executives are certain Lionsgate inks a pact as well. For the present, it's apparent that execs at Weinstein are frustrated with the state of affairs between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, and they are anxious to get such important film projects as "Nine" and "The Seven Samurai" back on track.

UA is an ideal first candidate for an interim pact with the WGA among film companies, as its operations remain fledgling. Lacking TV operations, UA has felt little impact of the WGA's tough demands on reality TV or even new-media residuals.

And like other indies, it isn't represented directly on the AMPTP board and feels less pressure to maintain solidarity with the studio group.

The AMPTP said on Dec. 7 that it would refuse to continue contract talks with the WGA until the guild removed certain demands from the bargaining table.

As for whether MGM would be likely to follow in UA's path, that's considered unlikely. MGM has a seat on the AMPTP board, and with both film and TV productions it would be much more daunting a task to hammer out an interim contract with the WGA.

MGM declined comment, but a well-placed source suggested that MGM boss Harry Sloan spent much of the weekend huddling with Cruise and Wagner in an effort to dissuade them from proceeding with the interim pact. The MGM/UA discussions also centered on how such a pact could be managed within the MGM corporate structure, as ultimately Sloan was resigned to letting his prestige management team at UA make the final decision in the matter.

With Cruise and Wagner still very much in the early stages of their turnaround takeover at UA, it would be a tough call for Sloan to demand they continue to let dust collect on their projects.

UA postponed production on Stone's My Lai Massacre project "Pinkville" in mid-November, saying it needed a script rewrite that couldn't be done because of the writers strike. Skeptics at the time thought that might have been a convenient excuse after the Cruise starrer "Lions for Lambs" opened to disappointing business earlier in the month.

Whatever the original motivation for placing "Pinkville" on hold, a well-placed source said that "Pinkville" would remain in turnaround despite any interim agreement UA inks with the WGA. That's at least partly because cast who had been attached to the project have since moved on to other productions.

Cruise is scheduled to shoot a final desert scene for his World War II thriller "Valkyrie" next month, perhaps in Dubai. Asked about UA's talks with the guild on Friday, a UA rep said a statement would be coming shortly but later said nothing would be issued and declined further comment.

Meanwhile, it's worth noting that no specifics have been circulated even about the WGA's deal with Worldwide Pants, though it's been purported that the TV production company accepted whatever guild demands were within its power to concede. Those agreeing to interim deals with the WGA are being given the option of replacing the pacts whenever a broader guild contract is finally reached with the AMPTP.

A deal with UA would represent a big notch in the win column for the WGA in its strike showdown with the AMPTP. But separately Friday, the WGA failed in a bid to have the city reject film-permit applications from struck production companies.

The guild pleaded its case to the city in a Friday hearing before the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. The WGA sought to have struck companies denied the permits necessary to close city streets for location shoots.

A spokesman for FilmLA, the private organization that helps facilitate industry permit requests, said the board nixed the guild's request after consultation with the city attorney.

But the board did issue an opinion — with no binding force of law — that production companies obtaining permits provide guild representatives 20 minutes on location during film shoots to state their views on the WGA's current negotiations impasse.

The WGA has been on strike since Nov. 5, and its last film and TV contract with the AMPTP expired Oct. 31.

"The Public Works commission did make a recommendation that the production companies hear the writers out, on location, for a period of 20 minutes," FilmLA spokesman Todd Lindgren said. "It's a recommendation. It's not anything that was binding, and if the city attorney advises us in a formal letter to do that, we will. But until then, we don't have the power to do that, and we're out of it."

Lindgren said FilmLA took no position on the matter during the board hearing.

"The WGA is committed to bringing this strike to a successful conclusion as quickly as possible," the guild said Friday in a statement acknowledging its failed attempt to stop film permitting. "The big media companies that walked away from the bargaining table and continue to refuse to negotiate shoulder the responsibility for damaging the entertainment industry and the Los Angeles economy."

The AMPTP also issued a statement criticizing the guild's attempt to prevent location shoots.

"The WGA this morning engaged in a failed effort to stop the city of Los Angeles from issuing four separate permits for film production," the AMPTP said. "Although the WGA was rebuffed by the L.A. Board of Public Works, the WGA's attempt to derail production on films with completed scripts — and thus to throw hundreds and hundreds more people out of work — shows that the WGA's organizers are continuing to do whatever they can to make good on their boast to 'wreak havoc' on our industry."