Hollywood Strike Threat Looms

A Hollywood blockbuster arrives Monday: Contract talks between the Writers Guild of America and producers that could avert a strike or signal an industrywide summer shutdown.

The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which represents major studios and independent companies, were to begin a limited two-week negotiation. The WGA contract expires May 1.

The entertainment industry has been holding its breath over the possibility of a walkout by both screenwriters and actors, whose guild contracts end July 1.

A strike would halt movie and TV production, with a disrupted fall television season the first fallout for consumers. The Los Angeles-area economy could be hit by losses of more than $400 million a week, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Development Corporation.

Tough talk by the studios, the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Radio & Television Artists _ representing 135,000 actors _ has led to dire predictions.

When asked at a recent news conference if there will be a walkout, 20th Century Fox Television president Dana Walden gave a succinct reply: "Unfortunately, yes."

Last year's rancorous six-month walkout by TV and radio commercial actors is seen as a harbinger of union determination.

The very location of the talks appears symbolic: For the first time in at least two decades, the WGA demanded the sides meet at its midtown headquarters instead of the AMPTP's suburban offices.

If the two weeks of negotiations fail, talks would likely be suspended until April.

Bracing for a walkout, studios fast-tracked movies, booking stars for back-to-back productions. TV producers have tried to coax extra scripts from writers, a move vehemently opposed by John Wells, the powerful producer of "ER" and "The West Wing" who heads the WGA's West Coast branch.

Hollywood ultimately may be facing a triple whammy: The Directors Guild of America contract covering 12,000 directors ends in July 2002.

More than money is at stake for the 11,000 guild writers. They are butting heads with directors as well as studios in demanding "creative rights" that would give them a more active role in production.

The WGA also is seeking elimination of the so-called possessory credit for film directors, the "A film by ..." designation that writers contend minimizes their importance.

Despite the contentious issues, the WGA dismisses strike talk as overblown. "Hype whipping itself into a frenzy," is how WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden characterized it.

"We are very hopeful," Rhoden said Friday. "At the same time, we enter negotiations with the sense that there are issues that will not be easy to negotiate. The companies have resisted change in these areas for a very long time."

Nick Counter, president of the producers' alliance, was guarded about immediate prospects for a deal.

"The fact that we're commencing negotiations at this time is positive and we intend to negotiate in good faith and reach an agreement," Counter said last week.

But he added he was concerned the two-week time frame for negotiation "is not practicable."

Rhoden called the limited window more than ample.

Creative rights issues have been under discussion with studio heads for more than two years, while the companies have had the guild's economic proposals since September, she said.

The WGA is seeking changes in key residual payment formulas it calls outdated. Increased residuals for cable programs, for reuse of TV shows and movies on videocassettes and DVDs, and for foreign distribution are among the demands.

For example, writers currently receive 4 cents for every VHS tape or DVD produced, a figure set when videotapes were first introduced and production costs were high. The WGA wants an additional 4 cents per tape or disc.

Studio executives have claimed the WGA proposals, if applied to the upcoming actors' and directors' contracts, would cost up to $2.4 billion over three years. The WGA disputes that, saying the three-year cost increase for all the guilds would amount to a cumulative $725 million.


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