Entertainment Industry Braces for Possible Writers Strike

With less than two days left in the Hollywood writers contract, negotiators resumed talks Monday, hoping to avert a walkout that would halt TV and movie production.

Representatives of the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers met throughout the weekend, but ended talks Sunday without bridging a $100 million gap between their respective demands.

With both sides participating in a news blackout, it was unclear whether they had made any progress over the weekend or when talks started up again Monday morning. The current contract expires at midnight Tuesday, and if talks break off, a strike authorization vote and a walkout could take place within a few days.

The real cliffhanger for audiences is whether a strike will keep their favorite comedies and dramas off the air in the fall.

If the writers walk out, the first victims would be daily soap operas and late-night variety shows, followed by sitcoms and hour-long dramas if a strike drags on.

"It might be the winter season before the public starts seeing a lot of new shows," said Doug Lieblein, a writer-producer on the CBS comedy "Yes, Dear."

Studio officials and WGA leaders have said they are willing to compromise -- but only a little.

"The notion, which has been offered by some, that the gap between us can possibly be bridged by simply meeting in the middle is ill-informed and, unfortunately, a nonstarter for us," DreamWorks SKG studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg said.

Walkout fears have strained Hollywood for months, with studios preparing for a dead zone in production by rushing film shoots and trying, mostly in vain, to stockpile scripts.

Not only is Tuesday the last day of the writers union's contract for its 11,000 members, but agreements for the two performers' unions -- the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists -- expire on June 30.

Back-to-back strikes could devastate the entertainment industry by delaying the TV season and new movie releases even more.

TV networks say they may rely on more reality programming to make up for a lack of scripted shows, but writers dismiss that plan.

"Imagine if the networks' Monday lineup was essentially 'Survivor,' 'Millionaire' and 'Weakest Link,' and then on Tuesday, 'Survivor,' 'Millionaire' and 'Weakest Link,"' Lieblein said. "The networks may pretend that won't kill them, but it will."

Movie studios may turn to releasing more foreign films or independently made pictures to compensate for the shortage of Hollywood-produced fare.

Talks between the writers and the alliance began Jan. 22, but halted March 1 amid disagreements over how much residual pay studios owe writers when films or TV shows are broadcast overseas or rerun domestically. The writers also want more money from videocassettes and DVDs.

Negotiations resumed April 17 and continued Sunday.

John Wells, president of the western unit of the writers' union and a writer-producer of "ER" and "The West Wing," has said Hollywood writers earned a total of about $1.2 billion in 2000 and are demanding a $99.7 million increase over three years.

The producers' alliance, however, has said that raising the minimum pay would also raise the scale for top writers, amounting to an actual increase of $227.4 million over three years.

Studios say they can't afford that in today's burgeoning entertainment world.

"Costs keep going up but the ability to achieve the kind of audience levels necessary to cover those costs seemingly is going down because of all the competition," said Walt Disney Co. president Robert Iger.

Even Lieblein, the writer, said he doesn't agree with all of the union's demands and, with a wife and infant son to support, he isn't willing to strike at any cost.

"We're all saving our money to prepare for the worst-case scenario," Lieblein said. "We'd be stupid not to."

Behind-the-scenes workers also are planning for the possibility of a strike.

Costume-maker John David Ridge, who did wardrobe on the film "Charlie's Angels" and the upcoming "Spider-Man," is looking for business on Broadway.

"I'd have to lay off 18 to 25 really good seamstresses and tailors" if there were a strike, he said. "These are people with no cushion, no residuals, no royalties -- nothing coming in to help them through a strike."

A recent study commissioned by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan found that prolonged strikes would cost the area's economy as much as $6.9 billion and could result in the loss of around 130,000 jobs, pushing the city's unemployment rate from 4.8 percent to 6.9 percent.

Robert Dowling, editor in chief of The Hollywood Reporter, believes an agreement will be reached, probably over the next few days.

"The mood has really changed," he said. "I think they're saying let's take this to the finish line" and end the dispute.

Others say the union might extend its contract until late June, when the actors' contracts are set to expire, which could give both writers and actors more leverage in negotiations. A lucrative agreement now for the writers could inadvertently lead to a performers' strike if the actors decide to increase their demands accordingly and producers balk.

In any case, few writers expect the union to strike until the summer.

"There isn't much TV production until then, so there would be no pressure to end the strike," Lieblein said. "Right now, we could strike for six weeks and nothing would change."