Studios Make Offer, Writers Unimpressed

So much for the media blackout.

Four days into negotiations that many had hoped would bring an end to a costly strike, negotiators for the studios and writers Thursday reversed their pledge to keep talks secret.

The communication moratorium was designed to make it easier for both sides to focus on finding a way out of the strike, now in its fourth week.

But late Thursday, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers issued a statement touting a "groundbreaking" new contract proposal it valued at more than $130 million in additional compensation, "above and beyond the more than $1.3 billion writers already receive each year."

The Writers Guild of America, also breaking its silence, immediately shot back and dismissed the studios' proposal as mere hype. "It amounts to a massive rollback," the WGA said in a letter to its members that was simultaneously released to the media.

The setback underscored the continued disconnect between writers and studios over what they say constitutes a fair deal. This week, the writers have expressed growing frustration about what they view as the snail's pace of negotiations.

Both sides said they planned to return to the bargaining table Tuesday.

Thursday's unexpected action to break the media blackout inflamed tensions and dashed the hopes of many industry insiders that a new three-year deal could be concluded quickly. It also demonstrated how far apart the sides remain on the key issues of pay for writers' work on movies and television shows distributed via the Internet and other new technology.

For the presentation of TV episodes online, writers said the studios offered a single, fixed payment of less than $250 for an hourlong program, negligible in relation to the more than $20,000 a writer earns when that program is rerun on a network. The guild said the companies offered nothing for movies shown free on the Internet.

Regarding shows created specifically for the Internet, studios offered to pay a script fee of $1,300 for episodes lasting up to 15 minutes that are derived from scripted dramatic programs. However, the studios refused to give the union jurisdiction for all other original shows created for the Internet.

That's a major sticking point. Writers view online entertainment as a new frontier and don't want to be shortchanged. Studios, however, say they can't compete in the new medium if they must pay union wages.

Furthermore, the guild said, the studios did not budge from their previous offer to apply an unpopular DVD formula to movies and TV shows that are sold online. Nor did the studios scrap an equally controversial proposal that allows them to stream entire films and TV episodes for promotional purposes without paying residuals.

Altogether, the guild said its own proposal would cost the industry $151 million over three years.

For their part, the studios suggested in their statement that their new proposal would pave the way to a deal. "We continue to believe that there is common ground to be found between the two sides and that our proposal for a New Economic Partnership offers the best chance to find it."

Guild leaders, however, were not willing to be so accommodating. Returning to their heightened rhetoric, they said they'd return to the picket lines Monday and vowed they would "not accept a bad deal."