Talks Fail, Strike On
Writers Guild walks out, maybe for a long time
Despite the aid of a federal mediator and back-channel talks between top writers and studio executives, the sides were ultimately too far apart to bridge the massive divide between them and avert the first writers strike in nearly two decades.
After three months of contentious negotiations, talks broke down Wednesday night (Oct. 31) when the writers' three-year contract expired. Although they made minimal headway on some issues Sunday, the parties could not come to terms on such key issues as how much writers are paid when their shows are sold online.
The question now is no longer whether or when they will strike, but how long a walkout will last and how much pain it will inflict.
Both sides are girding for what many believe will be a long and debilitating strike, potentially more disruptive than the 22-week walkout by writers in 1988, which cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million.
"Once it starts, it's going to get ugly," one of the guild's strike captains said Sunday.
A strike doesn't necessarily preclude the writers and producers from continuing to negotiate on a new contract and could even accelerate that process as both sides try to minimize the financial toll it could take.
Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers spent more than 10 hours in talks at Sofitel hotel in West Hollywood. At 9:30 p.m., writers guild officials walked out of the meeting.
"It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action," alliance President Nick Counter said.
The guild said that although the union had agreed to withdraw its proposal to double DVD pay, which had been a stumbling block in negotiations, producers refused to make concessions in other key areas. Among other things, producers refused to grant the union jurisdiction for most new-media writing, the guild said. They also insisted on a proposal that would allow them to reuse movies or TV shows on any platform for promotional purposes with no residual payment.
"This proposal alone destroys residuals," the guild said.
Sunday's talks marked the most substantial meeting since the parties began protracted negotiations this summer, raising a glimmer of hope that a deal might be within reach.
Back-channel efforts by some of the industry's top writers and chief executives appeared to break a logjam that had stopped the sides from starting the negotiations in earnest.
The apparent headway came amid outside pressure from such respected writers as "ER" executive producer John Wells, a former guild president, and "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry as well as News Corp. President Peter Chernin, Warner Bros. Entertainment Chairman Barry Meyer and Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger.
A federal mediator brought in last week had coaxed both sides back to the table Sunday.
But ultimately, not enough progress was made to avert a strike.
A strike would immediately affect more than 10,000 film and TV writers nationwide, the majority of whom appear to be determined to wage a long fight.
"These are some of the most important issues writers have faced in many years," said Dan E. Fesman, a writer for "NCIS." "If we don't get these protections now, then we don't know what our futures are going to be."
As part of its preparations, the guild has amassed a strike fund of about $12.5 million to help provide loans to writers during a walkout. Writers wouldn't automatically get the money but would have to apply for assistance based on financial need.
In contrast, major studios and networks are better equipped to withstand a long walkout because they are owned by deep-pocketed media giants with diverse global businesses. Since the last writers strike in 1988, Hollywood has seen a wave of media consolidations. Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC Inc. in 1996 and Viacom purchased Paramount Pictures in 1993 and CBS in 2000.
However, there's no question a strike would hurt their business. To keep production flowing, studios and networks have stockpiled scripts. Although networks have enough shows to carry them through the fall season, a strike stretching into next month would disrupt midseason programs that begin airing in January as well as next year's TV pilot season. By replacing new episodes of shows with reruns, reality TV and sports programs, networks risk having viewers permanently turn to other forms of entertainment.