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Writers will strike, union leaders say

Thousands rally after talks with producers deadlock. A walkout could begin Monday unless a deal is reached.

November 02, 2007|Richard Verrier, Claudia Eller and Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writers

Leaders of the union representing Hollywood's film and television scribes declared Thursday night that they would go on strike in what would be the first walkout by writers in nearly two decades.

Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America told thousands of members gathered at the Los Angeles Convention Center that they would notify members of the timing of the walkout by e-mail this afternoon, according to people present at the meeting.

Although the announcement moves the entertainment industry closer to a debilitating strike, there is still an outside chance that an agreement on a new contract may be reached in the next few days.

A prolonged strike would destabilize Southern California's signature industry and spur a domino effect across the Los Angeles economy, throwing untold numbers of people out of work. Television viewers could notice an immediate change: David Letterman's Top 10 list on CBS, for instance, could be reprised from an earlier show.

Thursday night's rally of about 3,000 film and TV writers occurred a day after talks with their employers broke down amid disputes over DVD residuals and pay for programs distributed over the Internet. The writers' employment agreement expired at midnight Wednesday.

The union's board of directors is set to formally ratify the strike plans at a 10 a.m. meeting today at the West Coast guild's headquarters in the Fairfax district.

Barring a last-minute deal, a strike would probably start Monday, people close to the guild said. That would mark the first time in nearly two decades that writers had walked off the job. The guild represents about 12,000 film and TV writers, of which roughly 7,000 work regularly.

At the packed Convention Center, guild leaders were greeted with multiple standing ovations and cheers by members, many of whom were clad in red T-shirts emblazoned with "United We Stand."

"This is a watershed negotiation for the Writers Guild," David Young, the union's chief negotiator, told the raucous crowd. "This is not the average negotiation. This has the potential to determine writers' income from the Internet and new media for the next generation and beyond."

The studios' chief negotiator said he was still committed to reaching a deal with the writers.

"By the WGA leadership's actions at the bargaining table, we are not surprised by tonight's recommendation," said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. "We are ready to meet and are prepared to close this contract this weekend."

On Thursday afternoon, Hollywood was acting as if a strike had already been called.

"This feels like Armageddon," said entertainment attorney David Colden. Studio executives were scrambling to give writers script notes so they could hand in final drafts while writers were holed up finishing their projects. Agents and lawyers were drawing up contracts, scurrying to get their clients paid before a work stoppage.

The guild had instructed all writers with offices on studio lots to pack up their belongings.

"We've been told by our strike captains to clear out our offices today," said Nicole Yorkin, an executive producer on FX's "The Riches." She said she and the writing staff, who work in Santa Clarita, were rushing to write final scenes for the drama's second season, deal with executives' feedback on drafts and make casting choices -- all before the end of day Thursday.

The union also requested that writers turn in all drafts of their work to make sure no one violated rules that prevent them from writing during a strike.

Studio executives were going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that some of their top producers and directors who are also writers can keep working. One senior executive said he was making plans to move the editing suite of a feature film off the lot so his writer-producer could continue his work as a filmmaker without crossing a picket line.

On Wednesday, as executives drove onto the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, they were handed copies of two memos from the top brass outlining strict instructions on dealing with pickets, who are expected to show up across town at studios and production sites.

The memos cautioned staffers to "remain calm, proceed slowly so as to not endanger the picketers in the crosswalk or in the sidewalks; leave your vehicle windows up; do not talk to picketers. They may try to argue with you and provoke a dispute."

A looming strike has heightened anxieties on both sides, reflecting the unique relationship that exists between writers and their studio bosses.

"There's so much tension because we're in so deep with our writers," an executive said. "They're killing themselves right now for us trying to turn in scripts, and tomorrow we're going to be on opposite sides of the table. It's really bizarre."

In Hollywood, labor relations are distinct from most other industries. In sharp contrast to auto and grocery workers, for example, writers and studio executives essentially work as partners on projects.

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