In a development that underscores the deteriorating state of labor relations in Hollywood, the chief negotiator for the major studios Monday accused the union that represents TV and film writers of jeopardizing production by rejecting his request to enter early contract talks.
J. Nicholas Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers, said his offer to begin negotiations in January had been spurned by David Young, executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West. Instead, Counter said, Young proposed beginning talks in September, just before the writers' contract expires Oct. 31.
"We've been rebuked," Counter said.
The failure to schedule early contract talks reflects rising labor tensions in Hollywood that eventually could lead to a strike or work slowdown if they aren't defused soon.
Writers and actors believe that they were shortchanged for years by studios during the DVD boom, and have vowed not to let it happen again as Hollywood moves toward the digital delivery of entertainment. The studios' contract with actors expires in 2008.
Studios and writers have been haggling since last summer on when their next round of negotiations would begin. In recent years, Hollywood unions and studios have typically bargained months in advance because motion pictures and TV episodes must be shot so far ahead of time, and because top stars, writers and directors have limited availability. Studios are loath to let labor contracts run down to the wire because pulling the plug on projects is so costly if a strike does occur.
Counter said the inability to schedule early talks substantially raised the odds of a "de facto strike" similar to one that occurred in 2001. Fearing a walkout by writers and actors, studios that year raised production to frenzied levels to stockpile scripts and projects.
After deals were reached that averted strikes, so many films were sitting on shelves that producers turned the spigot off. That threw thousands of production employees out of work, some for nearly a year, before work levels started to recover.
Studio and network executives fear that a similar scenario may unfold next year, especially given the increasingly long lead time required for movies.
Beginning next year, studios and producers are expected to accelerate productions and build up an inventory of scripts just in case. They also are expected to order more unscripted TV fare such as reality shows and game shows, which could limit the number of scripted comedies and dramas needed next season.
The guild's president, Patric Verrone, and Executive Director Young were unavailable for comment. In a statement, Young said that the guild was meeting with members on contract issues and talking with sister Hollywood guilds. It would be prepared to begin negotiations this summer, he said, well before the current contract expires.
"We fully expect that a fair agreement will be reached in our upcoming negotiation," he said.
Writers last struck in 1988 for 22 weeks, which cost the industry about $500 million.
Tensions have been rising between the 11,000-member guild and the studios since Verrone and his supporters swept control of the guild's board last year. Verrone vowed to step up organizing efforts in such areas as reality TV and basic cable while taking a harder line in talks with studios.
John McLean, a former CBS executive, was ousted as the union's executive director and chief negotiator last year amid criticism that he was too close to the studios. He was replaced by Young, the union's head of organizing.
A veteran union activist and former Teamsters official, Young has rankled Hollywood executives and some high-profile writers by dispatching members to disrupt industry panel discussions and adopting other public protest tactics traditionally used by blue-collar unions.
The guild also recently backed a strike by writers who worked on the CW network's hit reality TV show "America's Next Top Model."