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The Talk Is About No Talks

The industry * At the Writers Guild of America awards show, the threat of a strike dampens the annual glitzy, festive event.

March 06, 2001|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They had come to Beverly Hills to be recognized by their peers, each one nominated for writing some of last year's best movies. But amid the glitzy festivities that marked the Writers Guild of America's annual awards show Sunday night at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, there was no getting around it: The breakdown in labor talks last week between the guild and Hollywood's major studios and TV networks was on everyone's mind.

Robert Nelson Jacobs, the writer of the Oscar-nominated film "Chocolat," said that if a strike comes, he would not hesitate to walk the picket lines with his fellow writers.

"I'm a union man," Jacobs said, who was nominated for a WGA award and an Oscar for adapted screenplay for "Chocolat." "I hope it doesn't come to [a strike], but if that is what it takes, I'll be out there in the picket line and I'll probably run into some friends of mine."

Stephen Gaghan, who picked up the WGA award for best adapted screenplay that evening for another Oscar-nominated film, "Traffic," said he would like to see negotiators for both sides get back to the table and "negotiate in good faith . . . and settle this thing so we don't stop work." But Gaghan made no bones about his loyalty to his guild.

"I think they accomplished a lot since Dalton Trumbo founded it," he said. "I'll be right out there."

And Susannah Grant, who wrote the screenplay for yet another Oscar-nominated movie, "Erin Brockovich," added: "Nobody wants to be out of work, but I don't know of a person who thinks that the guild is unreasonable. I think they're incredibly reasonable. I can't believe the studios won't have to give."

As the guild's big yearly bash, the WGA awards show is a chance for Hollywood writers to break away from their computer keyboards, chat with colleagues they rarely see and applaud a stream of speakers. But Sunday night's dinner got off on a serious note when WGA President John Wells took the microphone before the show got underway to give guild members a glimpse of where the negotiating team feels the producers are coming up short. Still, Wells also assured the writers that talks will resume before the May 1 deadline passes, and he disputed the claims of pundits that a strike is inevitable.

"As I'm sure you've heard by now," Wells said, "we've suspended the early negotiation phase for talks with the studios and networks. Does that mean we will inevitably end up in a strike this summer as so many pundits have predicted? No. We're still eight weeks away from the expiration of our contract with the companies and 17 weeks away from the expiration of the SAG/AFTRA contract.

"We were all disappointed that our first round of talks did not end with our agreement on terms of a new deal," he added. "While we have made some progress, we remain significantly apart on many issues. We will be back to the bargaining table in the near future."

*

But there was no getting around the fact that Hollywood is concerned about where this will all end. From Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed the coming-of-age film "Almost Famous," to Steve Kloves, the screenwriter behind the black comedy "Wonder Boys," to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, who picked up the WGA award for best original screenplay Sunday night for his drama "You Can Count on Me," nominated writers expressed concern that the two sides in the labor dispute broke off talks, and belief that there is plenty of time to return to the bargaining table and hammer out an agreement that is fair to all.

"I sort of have faith in the negotiations right now," said Crowe, who admits he has been in his own "cocoon" in recent weeks shooting his latest film with Tom Cruise, "Vanilla Sky." But while Crowe has the luxury of directing his own screenplays, he still remembers the days when he was starting out in the business.

"All I know is when I participated in the last strike in the 1980s, I really felt that the writers needed the thickest coat of armor possible, and I still feel that way," Crowe said. "I'm lucky to be a guy who directs his own stuff, but I was also a guy who didn't direct his own stuff [at one time]. You need some muscle behind you."

Kloves said that it doesn't surprise him that the labor talks broke off last week. "I think if everyone takes a little cooling-off period, it might benefit," he said. "You know, we're still two months away [from expiration of the contract]. I'm not overly concerned, but I'm concerned. I want to work."

Lonergan, meanwhile, said that because he lives in New York, he can't accurately assess the current mood of Hollywood, but he did offer a bleak assessment that the issues impact so many other people that it will be difficult to resolve them quickly.

"It's hard," he said. "It's not just the writers and the studios, it's the writers and the studios and the directors and the actors and the things the Writers Guild wants is going to directly affect the Directors Guild. That's a complication that I don't know how they are going to surmount."

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