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Studios, writers quit talks at deadline; strike looms

November 01, 2007|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Striking so soon carries big risks for the writers union.

"The guild would look completely unreasonable if it struck immediately, particularly since they've introduced a federal mediator," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment industry attorney with TroyGould in Los Angeles and a former associate counsel for the Writers Guild. "There's no need for them to drop that arrow from their quiver so quickly."

Few were surprised by the logjam in talks, given how far apart the two sides have been on major issues. At one point this week, the parties couldn't even agree on where to meet.

"With the late start in negotiations, this was predictable," said veteran entertainment attorney Howard Fabrick, of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. "It's a consequence of the way both sides approached collective bargaining this year, choosing to do so in a public forum rather than across the table where deals get made."

Writers maintain they were shortchanged years ago, when they agreed to a discounted pay formula for home video sales, only to see that business flourish. They currently receive about 5 cents for every DVD sold. And they're determined not to make the same mistake again, now that entertainment is undergoing another transformation, this one on the Internet.

They are seeking to double the current residual rate for home video sales and get higher rates for films and TV shows that are sold online, as well as residual payments for shows streamed for free over the Web.

Studios say the demands are economically untenable. They've rejected the proposal to raise home video payments, maintaining that DVD sales are needed to offset rising marketing and production costs in film and television. They oppose paying higher rates on digital downloads or getting locked into fixed pay formulas for online shows when they're grappling with uncertain business models.

The two sides also have squared off over reality TV. The Writers Guild wants members who work on so-called unscripted shows to have union benefits just like their peers. They've filed lawsuits against producers of reality TV shows, alleging violations of labor laws, and backed a strike against producers of the CW's "America's Next Top Model."

Producers have argued that writers for reality TV aren't writers in the conventional sense and claim the union has no jurisdiction.

But the dispute also has been fueled by a clash of personalities.

On one side is Counter, a scrappy veteran negotiator who for more than two decades has held together the often-fractious producers alliance.

He has often sparred with chief union negotiator David Young, a former veteran organizer of construction and garment workers. He was named the West Coast guild's executive director last year. This is his first major negotiation in the entertainment industry.

Since he was hired, Young has favored confrontational tactics associated with blue-collar unions like the Teamsters, such as staging pickets and protests at industry panels. The tactics have irritated Counter, who has publicly criticized Young as reckless and inexperienced.

"The fact that the two men don't evidently have any kind of relationship of trust at all would seem to mean that it's difficult, if not impossible, to do the kind of off-the-record exploration that often leads to breakthroughs," said Dan Petrie Jr., past president of the WGA West.

Likewise, there's no love lost between Counter and Verrone, the animation writer who has been guiding the guild's strategy, along with a negotiating committee made up of top writer-producers including Shawn Ryan ("The Unit"), Neal Baer ("Law & Order Special Victims Unit") and Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives").

None of these show runners has played a role similar to that of John Wells ("ER," "West Wing"), the former guild president and writer-producer who helped avert a strike in 2001 by serving as a unifying voice.

As for the alliance, their group is dominated by such heavyweights as Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger, News Corp. President Peter Chernin, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves and Warner Bros. Entertainment Chairman Barry Meyer.

So far at least, none of them has emerged as a potential broker in the mold of Lew Wasserman, the legendary former agent and MCA chairman who frequently used his clout to keep the peace in Hollywood.

--

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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