It's a script many had hoped would not be written. Hollywood's film and TV scribes and their employers failed to reach an agreement before their contract expired at midnight Wednesday, setting the stage for a possible showdown that could ripple across the streets of Los Angeles and spill into America's living rooms.
Despite the presence of a federal mediator this week and more than a dozen bargaining sessions since July, negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers broke off talks six hours before the deadline.
The development doesn't guarantee an immediate walkout by writers but certainly heightens the prospect of Hollywood's first major strike in nearly two decades. Although writers could continue to work without a contract, a more probable scenario is a strike being called as early as Friday, people close to the guild said.
In a statement, the alliance said talks foundered after its chief negotiator, Nick Counter, outlined the producers' opposition to raising the pay writers received when their work appeared on DVD and is sold via the Internet -- key guild demands.
"We want to make a deal," he told WGA negotiators. "But, as I said, no further movement is possible to close the gap between us so long as your DVD proposal remains on the table."
The alliance said WGA members refused to meet today. "When they were asked about Friday, they advised they would call us," the statement added.
Writers Guild officials said it was the alliance that brought negotiations to a halt.
"Every issue that matters to writers, including Internet reuse, original writing for new media, DVDs and jurisdiction, has been ignored," the guild said in a statement. "This is completely unacceptable."
The dispute comes as Hollywood is in the throes of a digital revolution that is transforming the way entertainment is delivered, heightening friction between labor and management.
The writers' previous strike, in 1988, lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated $500 million. Economists believe that a strike could be more painful this time around because the entertainment industry has grown, accounting for roughly 7% of the county's economy, or about $30 billion annually.
Writers Guild members had voted by a 90% majority to authorize their leaders to call a strike anytime after their contract expires.
The guild was expected to wait at least until after a general membership meeting tonight. Guild leaders were anticipating a large turnout and had booked space at the Los Angeles Convention Center. About 12,000 writers are covered under the contract, with about 7,000 working regularly.
The meeting will "update everyone in person on negotiations and what our next options will be," Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, told guild members in an e-mail.
A writers strike wouldn't shut down production as an actors strike might but would cause plenty of disruption. Picket lines could go up across town at various studios.
Among the first TV fans affected would be those who watch live late-night programs, such as Jay Leno's show on NBC, David Letterman's on CBS and Jon Stewart's on Comedy Central. Television networks have been stockpiling scripts for weeks, giving them enough episodes of prime-time programs to last through most of the fall season.
Some TV and film productions could also be disrupted if Teamsters truck drivers, production coordinators and location managers refuse to cross picket lines.
Leo Reed, head of Teamsters Local 399, this week urged his members not to cross picket lines, giving writers a boost of support. It's uncertain, however, how many drivers and others would show their solidarity.
The Screen Actors Guild, whose leaders share many of the writers' concerns, has urged actors to walk the picket lines in their free time. However, neither actors nor members of the Directors Guild of America could strike until their contracts expire June 30.
Writers won't receive much support from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents thousands of film crew members that work behind the scenes of shoots. IATSE has threatened legal action over the guild's rules that bar animation writers from working during a strike -- even if they also belong to its Animation Guild Local 839.
The current guild leadership has spent months preparing for a walkout, assigning "strike captains" to mobilize members. Guild leaders repeatedly have signaled their readiness to walk out immediately, reasoning that they could inflict more damage in the middle of the fall TV season than if they waited until next year, when studios would have accumulated more scripts.
Writers Guild leaders also were said to be concerned that the Directors Guild of America would negotiate an early deal, potentially undercutting the writers' goals. The Directors Guild has laid the groundwork for negotiations to begin this year, well before its contract expires in June.