December 4, 2007 / 10:11 PM / 10 years ago

Striking writers, studios renew talks as hopes fade

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Striking film and television writers returned to the bargaining table with studio executives on Tuesday amid fading optimism for a speedy settlement to Hollywood’s worst labor crisis in 20 years.

<p>Supporters and members of the Writers Guild of America picket outside the News Corp building in New York, December 4, 2007. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton</p>

The two sides resumed contract negotiations as 10,500 members of the Writers Guild of America hit the one-month mark of a walkout that has idled production on dozens of TV shows and several high-profile movies, including a planned sequel to “The Da Vinci Code.”

Prospects for a quick deal seemed to soar when the parties agreed last month to renew formal negotiations for the first time since the work stoppage began on November 5, following months of rancor over how much writers should be paid for their work on the Internet.

But hopes were quickly dashed as the resulting four-day round of talks ended last Thursday with union leaders lifting a media blackout to sharply criticize a management offer touted by the studios as “groundbreaking.”

Studio executives reacted with dismay, disparaging union leaders in a wave of published but anonymous comments as being more interested in stoking antagonism than in making a deal.

The studios’ bargaining entity, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, struck a more conciliatory tone in an open letter that ran on Tuesday as an advertisement in the entertainment trade paper Daily Variety.

“Ours is not a ‘take it or leave it’ offer,” the AMPTP statement said. “It is designed to allow both sides to engage in the kind of substantive give-and-take negotiation that can lead to common ground.”

The WGA was expected this week to present a counteroffer.

A STICKY WEB

The outcome of the negotiations hinge on writers’ demands for a greater share of revenue for content distributed via the Internet, widely seen as the delivery pipeline of choice for most filmed entertainment in the not too distant future.

In terms of sheer dollar figures, the two sides do not appear to be that far apart.

The AMPTP puts the entire value of its compensation package at more than $130 million in new earnings for writers over three years. The union said its own plan would cost the film and TV industry $151 million over three years, amounting to a 3 percent increase in writers’ collective annual earnings.

But the two sides apparently disagree sharply over the economic assumptions of each other’s proposals, and the guild insists the studios are offering too little for the Internet and other new media.

For example, the union has faulted the studios’ offer of a single, fixed payment of $250 a year for an hourlong TV series when streamed over the Internet. The WGA says that amounts to a tiny fraction of more than $20,000 in “residual” fees writers now stand to earn for network reruns.

The writers also say the studios still refuse to establish a payment scheme for original content created especially for the Internet, and to go beyond their initial proposal to pay the same rates for digital downloads as for DVDs.

The last major Hollywood strike, a 1988 walkout by the WGA, lasted more than five months and cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Sandra Maler

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