LOS ANGELES – The 3-month-old Hollywood writers strike could enter its final chapter Saturday when guild members gather in Los Angeles and New York to consider a proposed contract.
If writers respond favorably, the walkout that has devastated the entertainment industry could end as soon as Monday.
Writers were wavering between hope and skepticism as they prepared to learn details of the deal for the first time.
"The feeling is relief and optimism and excitement," said Hilary Winston, a writer for the NBC sitcom "My Name Is Earl."
Still, she couldn't shake her lingering anxiety.
"I hope this deal made this three months worth it," she said.
Writer Erik Oleson, who watched a deal for a TV pilot fall apart during the strike, was reserving judgment.
"I'm not going to drink the Kool-Aid and accept a bad deal. I'd rather continue the strike," Oleson said. "We saw a press release but what matters is the fine print."
If members show strong support for the deal, the union could quickly lift its strike order, allowing dozens of TV shows to return to production and putting thousands of actors, crew members and others back to work.
An end to the strike might also salvage the Feb. 24 Academy Awards show, which is now facing a possible boycott by writers and sympathetic actors. The writers union has given a picket-free pass to Sunday's Grammy Awards.
The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios, have not publicly commented on the proposed contract because of a joint media blackout.
Michael Eisner, a former Walt Disney Co. chief executive, told CNBC the proposed deal was good enough to end the strike.
"It's impossible the writers will turn it down," said Eisner, whose successor at Disney, Robert Iger, was among the studio chiefs who helped shape the proposal with leaders of the writers guild.
The most contentious issue in the talks was residual payments for TV programs and movies distributed on the Internet.
"Within the next five years, most American televisions will be connected to the Internet. The shows and movies you watch on your TV will be downloaded or streamed," the union said in its strike fact sheet.
Some accounts suggest the proposed deal involving the 12,000-member union and the world's largest media companies improves on a contract agreement reached last month by studios and the Directors Guild of America.
Directors won several key concessions on new media, including payments for downloaded TV programs and movies based on a percentage of the distributor's gross.
The writers guild, however, has been seeking 2.5 percent of distributor grosses from Internet-delivered projects — about three times what the directors guild got in its deal.
Writers also balked at the maximum $1,200 flat fee that studios agreed to pay directors for streamed, ad-supported programs.
Writers won't vote Saturday on the proposed contract but will have a chance to voice their support or opposition at the closed meetings.
An e-mail circulated by a strike captain urged pro-deal members to attend so union leaders wouldn't hear only from opponents.
Other e-mails to guild members said a favorable response by writers would be followed by a Sunday meeting of the guild negotiating committee to consider lifting the strike order and scheduling a formal membership vote by mail.
"I hope Monday is when this town gets going again," Winston said. "If it's not Monday, I'll take Wednesday."
The strike has taken an estimated toll of at least $1 billion on the economy of Los Angeles County, where the bulk of the film and television industry is located, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
Warren Leight, an executive producer in New York for NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," doesn't think writers will be swayed by high-profile colleagues who have trumpeted the directors deal as a solid template for writers.
"If the deal works, everyone is ready to go back to work. But it has to be discussed by 10,000 people, not by 30 show runners and wannabe A-listers," Leight said.
Among the show runners — industry slang for executive producers in charge of a series — who lauded the directors deal was John Wells, whose credits include "ER" and "The West Wing." He termed it, "Very good. For writers, for directors, for the future."
A quick end to the walkout might result in TV viewers seeing a more new episodes of their favorite shows this season. A script takes about three weeks to write and about 40 working days to produce, so it could take as long as two months for the first new shows to air, Leight said.
But once a production has scripts and is up and running, episodes are worked on concurrently and an hour-long show can be produced within eight days, he said. That could allow an hourlong drama to return with perhaps a half-dozen new episodes, and a half-hour comedy to squeeze in as many as seven new shows for the rest of the season.
Networks, however, are likely to pick and choose among shows, with low-rated newcomers less likely to get deals for more episodes than a series like "Grey's Anatomy," which has a big, faithful audience.