Talks, Progress Raise Hopes for Deal

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

By LYNN ELBER, AP Entertainment Writer



While negotiators edge toward agreement on the thorniest issues in the 3-month-old writers strike, many in Hollywood are nurturing new hope that an end is near for the walkout that has brought their industry to a standstill.

The Writers Guild of America and studio executives, beginning a second week of renewed talks, have made progress on the key issue of payment for Internet-distributed work, said a person familiar with the talks who was not authorized to publicly comment and requested anonymity. But hard work remains to be done, the person said.

The guild agreed last week to take proposals to unionize animation and reality TV writers _ demands that contributed to December's abrupt collapse _ off the table. That left new-media compensation as the major hurdle to overcome.

Even without official announcements coming from the closed-door talks, a strike-fatigued community showed it was ready to embrace optimism _ just not giddily.

"I'm like everyone else. I'm hopeful," writer Devon Shepherd, whose credits include "Weeds" and "Everybody Hates Chris," said Tuesday.

"We're all just hoping that with time passing, cooler heads will prevail and people are seeing the bigger picture. The longer we stay out, it's not only hurting us but hurting the industry," he said.

The tone also was cautiously upbeat at Sunday's Screen Actors Guild Awards, where stars gathered after the writers guild said it would not picket.

"Every single day, everybody is making a projection," said "Big Love" star Jeanne Tripplehorn. "I think we're all more hopeful than in the past."

Jenna Fischer, star of the "The Office," echoed that perspective on the red carpet.

"It feels hopeful for the first time," Fischer said.

Away from the spotlight, however, uncertainty remained over what the guild and studio heads might achieve in the talks that began after a six-week negotiations impasse. The talks are the subject of a media blackout.

The guild's board of directors gathered Tuesday to discuss the status of the talks before meeting again with studio executives.

The primary corporate representatives have been Peter Chernin, chief operating officer of News Corp., and Robert Iger, chief executive of The Walt Disney Co.

The informal talks began after the Directors Guild of America reached its own deal with studios this month, and studio moguls urged the writers to join the informal sessions.

Compensation for work offered on the Internet also was a key issue during the directors talks, and is expected to be critical when the Screen Actors Guild begins negotiations. Its contract with studios expires in June.

The upbeat thinking about possible progress in the writers talks is being driven by more than the desire to get thousands of people back to work in New York and Los Angeles and stem losses estimated at $1 billion or more.

The film industry has a fervent desire to see the Feb. 24 Academy Awards, its biggest promotional showcase, staged in full-blown glory, without the threat of pickets. The guild has thus far refused to grant a waiver that would take the Oscars off the list of struck shows and allow writers to participate.

Waivers have been granted to the upcoming Grammys and NAACP Image Awards.

The guild's refusal to make a deal with the Golden Globes, and a decision by stars to honor the strike and boycott the awards, reduced that ceremony to a news conference.

"There's no day, other than the Super Bowl, that's bigger for American advertisers and therefore for American networks than the Oscars," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment industry attorney and former associate counsel for the writers guild. "Both the studios and networks have an enormous amount riding on a successful Oscarcast," he said.

In another development, CBS News staffers who are members of the writers guild have overwhelmingly ratified a new contract with the network. The contract covers 500 employees who work in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago, in both TV and radio.

The deal provides raises of 3.5 percent annually plus a $3,700 contract bonus. The contract, effective immediately, runs through April 1, 2010. Staffers had been working under an expired contract for nearly three years.

Also Tuesday, CBS said it was joining with Canada's CTV on a police drama to be produced in Toronto and to air in both countries. CBS already had been scouting for foreign series but the strike provided the impetus for the deal on "Flashpoint," set to begin production in April. An air date was not announced.

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