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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The union representing Hollywood directors has agreed to open formal contract talks with major film and television studios on Saturday in a move seen as a potential blow to striking screenwriters.
The announcement of a start date follows two weeks of informal discussions between the Directors Guild of America and the studios' bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, aimed at laying the groundwork for official bargaining.
In a joint statement, the Directors Guild and studios said talks would start at the AMPTP headquarters and the two sides would not comment to the media until negotiations concluded.
The DGA, whose contract covering 13,000 members expires on June 30, is widely seen as less militant than the writers' union and more likely to reach a deal quickly with the studios, one that could undermine the writers' bargaining position.
There was no immediate comment from the Writers Guild of America, which launched its strike against the studios on November 5 in a dispute that has centered on how writers should be paid for work distributed over the Internet.
Talks aimed at ending the walkout by 10,500 WGA members collapsed in acrimony on December 7, with no further talks in sight. Since then, much of U.S. TV production has ground to a halt while major movie projects have been derailed and year-end Hollywood awards ceremonies have been canceled or scaled back.
One of the DGA's chief negotiators is Gil Cates, who also is producer of next month's Oscars show, an event whose fate has been left uncertain by the threat of WGA pickets.
Some industry watchers believe expeditious talks with the directors, who have a less contentious labor history, could hasten renewed negotiations between the studios and writers, perhaps even providing a template for a WGA settlement.
WGA leaders, however, have insisted they will resist any attempt by the industry to force a deal on them.
In December, more than 300 writer-directors, including Sean Penn, Ed Zwick and Lawrence Kasdan, signed a letter to DGA leaders urging the directors not open negotiations with the studios until the Writers Guild settles its dispute.
Days later, the DGA said it would wait until at least January to give the writers more time to restart their owned stalled contract talks. But the writers have so far failed to get the studios back to the bargaining table.
In recent weeks, DGA leaders and studio executives have held back-channel talks in preparation for formal contract negotiations, reportedly to sketch out broad terms of an eventual agreement.
The Directors Guild has spent a considerable amount of money and time conducting research as a basis for its economic proposals, and has hired veteran entertainment lawyer and dealmaker Ken Ziffrin to play a key role in its preparations.
The key sticking point for the WGA, residual fees for film and TV content delivered over the Internet, is not seen as being as important to the DGA because many of its members are far less dependent on residual income.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Walsh