With the possibility of a strike looming this summer, representatives of Hollywood writers and studios finally have agreed to start negotiating a new contract beginning Jan. 22.
The Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the industry's negotiating arm, are facing a 12:01 a.m. May 2 deadline on the expiration of their current three-year contract.
The WGA said that if a deal is not reached within two weeks it will break off talks until shortly before the contract expires.
A quick deal may not be easy because a big gulf remains between the two sides. Major money issues include higher payments for TV shows that air in foreign markets and on cable TV, better residuals for videocassette and DVD sales, higher payments for shows that air on the Fox network and how writers will be paid when work is distributed over the Internet.
In addition, the WGA wants producers to rein in the routine awarding of "A film by" credits to directors and also set rules allowing writers more input in the making of films.
Negotiations are starting much later than they generally have over the last 12 years, adding to the already high tensions running through Hollywood as studios face potential strikes by both writers and actors.
After a 22-week strike by writers in 1988, both writers and studios agreed to negotiate their contracts well in advance to defuse the kind of tensions that can torpedo a deal.
Efforts to start negotiations last fall failed when the sides were unable to agree on various ground rules. WGA leaders have nixed the strategy of holding early talks in favor of more traditional, confrontational negotiations because many writers now believe those early talks favored studios.
The WGA declined to comment.
J. Nicholas Counter, the industry's chief negotiator, called the development a positive one. "We're at least commencing negotiations," Counter said.
Separately, no date has been set to start negotiations between studios and two acting unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. That contract expires at 12:01 a.m. July 1.