Guild, Studios Agree to Informal Talks

With idled entertainment industry workers and Oscar-nominated actors among the interested observers, striking writers and studios are talking again after weeks of bargaining silence.

The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in a joint statement they will start informal discussions Wednesday aimed at full negotiations and an end to the nearly 3-month-old strike.

The announcement came the day nominations were announced for the Academy Awards, raising the prospect that the Feb. 24 ceremony might proceed without the threatened union picketing that derailed the Golden Globes.

In a goodwill gesture toward another big ceremony Tuesday, the guild said it had decided against picketing the Feb. 10 Grammy Awards.

Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said in a statement that his organization was pleased with the decision and that the awards "will focus solely on the great music, artists and charitable work resulting from our show."

An interim agreement allowing writers to work on the show would be welcome and might yet occur given the "fluid situation," Portnow told The Associated Press. But the performance-driven Grammys can still be "a complete show" without it, he said.

Contract talks between the guild and studios broke down Dec. 7 after the companies demanded that a half-dozen issues be dropped, including calls for the unionization of reality and animation shows. The guild rejected the demands.

The guild agreed Tuesday to withdraw those two issues to "make absolutely clear our commitment to bringing a speedy conclusion to negotiations," union executives Michael Winship and Patric Verrone said in an e-mail letter to members.

But organizing efforts for guild representation in those genres will continue and will be discussed more fully in the next two weeks, said Winship and Verrone, presidents of the East Coast and West Coast guilds, respectively.

Compensation for movie and TV projects distributed over the Internet are considered to be the central contract issues.

Both sides said a media blackout would be in place during the discussions.

On Tuesday, guild leaders met with studio chiefs to help get the negotiations back on track, according to a person familiar with the bargaining strategy who was not authorized to publicly comment and asked for anonymity.

The new approach mirrors a series of meetings held by the Directors Guild of America and studio heads before they began formal talks and reached a tentative deal last week after less than a week of bargaining.

The writers strike started Nov. 5. When the directors guild announced its deal with the alliance last week, studio heads urged the writers to join informal talks that could lead to the resumption of their negotiations.

In its deal with producers, the directors union reached agreement on the new-media compensation issues that also were key to their members, including compensation for movie and TV projects delivered over the Internet.

The studio executives said the deal established a precedent for the industry's creative talent to "participate financially in every emerging area of new media."

The directors won several key contract points, including union jurisdiction over programs produced for distribution on the Internet and payments for downloaded TV programs and movies based on a percentage of the distributor's gross.

But the writers guild was seeking 2.5 percent of such grosses — about three times what the directors' deal provides.

Interim deals made by the writers guild with several individual production companies provide 2 percent compensation on downloaded films and 2.5 percent on TV programs, the guild has said.