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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Striking Hollywood writers have opened preliminary contract talks with small, independent producers willing to break from major studios with whom the writers are deadlocked, their union leaders said on Wednesday.
But in a sign its new plan for multi-party talks was off to an uncertain start, John Bowman, head of the Writers Guild of America negotiating panel, acknowledged the union has yet to achieve the momentum its needs for such a strategy to succeed.
He also raised the possibility that pursuing talks with companies on an individual basis, rather than collectively through the studios' bargaining arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, could divide the WGA's own members.
"Next week we'll have something to announce, but the hard thing about it is if it would affect our solidarity," Bowman said during a City Hall news conference about the economic effects of the strike.
Asked about the WGA's first individual bargaining partners and whether those talks would yield tangible results, he said: "They are smaller companies, but we need a critical mass. If it has a critical mass, then it's something we'd do. I can't give you any details."
One company that has made known its interest in a separate WGA deal is Worldwide Pants, the independent production firm owned by late-night television host David Letterman, whose show has been in reruns since the strike began November 5.
His company is seeking an "interim agreement" with the WGA that would allow Letterman and another CBS program produced by Worldwide Pants, "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," to return to the airwaves with their writing staffs.
Letterman's executive producer, Rob Burnett, said on Wednesday that talks with the WGA on such a deal were scheduled to begin on Friday.
The WGA said it had sent letters this week to major AMPTP member companies demanding that they open separate contract negotiations with the union. For now, Bowman said: "We are talking with individual production companies and studios, individual companies who think the AMPTP is ridiculous."
The WGA announced its intention to seek multi-party deals with various producers after hitting a stalemate with the AMPTP, which represents roughly 350 companies, including major media conglomerates like the Walt Disney Co, CBS Corp and General Electric Co's NBC Universal.
The chief executives for eight of the biggest companies responded by vowing to maintain a united front and faulting union leaders as "grasping for straws."
The latest round of talks between the two sides broke down December 7 when the studios demanded that the writers drop a half-dozen WGA proposals, and union negotiators refused.
The main sticking point in contract talks has been the question of how writers should be paid for work distributed over the Internet, widely seen as the delivery pipeline of choice for most filmed entertainment in the not too distant future.
But the major studios assert that negotiations collapsed over the WGA's insistence on pursuing more peripheral issues such as seeking jurisdiction over animated material and reality TV shows.
Editing by Eric Beech