February 5, 2008 / 12:27 AM / 10 years ago

Hollywood on verge of deal to end writers strike

<p>Patric Verrone (C), President of Writers Guild of America, West, joins striking writers as they picket in front of NBC studios in Burbank, California January 2, 2008.Phil McCarten</p>

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Negotiators for Hollywood studios and striking writers have agreed to terms of a new contract that could be presented to union leaders in days and, if approved, end their three-month-old labor clash later this week, two sources told Reuters on Monday.

While the outlines of an accord were reached over the weekend, the two sides still need to hammer out contract language before a deal is submitted for approval to the governing boards the East and West Coast branches of the Writers Guild of America, they said.

Those sources, who were briefed on the status of talks but were not authorized to speak publicly about them under a media blackout, said negotiators hoped action by the WGA boards on a deal could come as early as Friday.

An endorsement by WGA leaders presumably would be accompanied by a decision to call off the strike, but if the WGA boards were divided, the walkout might continue pending a ratification vote by rank-and-file members.

One source said the big breakthrough in the latest round of talks, which began January 23, came on the key sticking point of how much writers should be paid for advertising-supported Internet "streaming" of television shows.

That source also characterized the writers' agreement in principle as an improvement over the terms of an earlier, separate contract deal for Hollywood directors that helped pave the way for studios and the WGA to resume bargaining after weeks of stalemate.

"They reached agreement on the major terms, and now its a question of reducing it to (contract) language, which we're all hoping goes well and continues in the same spirit of progress that the talks have experienced so far," he said.

He cautioned, however, that the process of translating a deal into contract language has led to snags in previous labor negotiations.

The WGA's East and West Coast presidents issued a joint statement on Sunday denying a deal was in place and urging members to resume picketing in force on Monday. There was no word on the talks from the studio's bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Still, recent media reports that a settlement might be near have lifted spirits in Hollywood, where thousands of workers -- from actors and directors to hairstylists, set designers and clerks -- have been thrown out of work.

The mood was notably upbeat at a luncheon for Oscar nominees in Beverly Hills as stars and studio executives spoke confidently of prospects for the strike being settled in time for the Academy Awards on February 24.

"It looks very good," actor George Clooney said, adding, "There's a lot of strike fatigue out there."

News of a breakthrough marked the first sign of substantial progress in efforts to end the strike since an earlier round of negotiations collapsed in acrimony on December 7.

Some 10,500 WGA members walked off the job on November 5, four days after their old contract with film and TV studios expired, shattering 20 years of Hollywood labor peace.

The work stoppage has thrown the U.S. television industry into turmoil and derailed several movie productions, costing an estimated $650 million in wages in the Los Angeles area alone. Over $1 billion more in lost earnings have been attributed to the strike's ripple effect on the local economy.

According to Daily Variety, TV executives regard February 15 as a de facto deadline for putting writers back to work in time to salvage what's left of the current broadcast season and development of new scripted shows for next fall.

For movie studios, early March is seen as the last chance for avoiding major disruptions to the 2009 release schedule.

Additional reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; editing by Todd Eastham

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