Hollywood's film and television writers went on strike early this morning after last-ditch efforts to negotiate a deal with the major studios failed Sunday.
Despite the aid of a federal mediator and back-channel talks between top writers and studio executives, the sides were ultimately too far apart to bridge the massive divide between them and avert the first writers strike in nearly two decades.
After three months of contentious negotiations, talks broke down Wednesday night when the writers' three-year contract expired. Although they made minimal headway on some issues Sunday, the parties could not come to terms on such key issues as how much writers are paid when their shows are sold online.
The question now is no longer whether or when they will strike, but how long a walkout will last and how much pain it will inflict.
Both sides are girding for what many believe will be a long and debilitating strike, potentially more disruptive than the 22-week walkout by writers in 1988, which cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million.
"Once it starts, it's going to get ugly," said one of the guild's strike captains Sunday.
A strike doesn't necessarily preclude the writers and producers from continuing to negotiate on a new contract and could even accelerate that process as both sides try to minimize the financial toll it could take.
Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers spent more than 10 hours in talks at Sofitel hotel in West Hollywood. At 9:30 p.m., writers guild officials walked out of the meeting.
"It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action," alliance President Nick Counter said.
The guild said that although the union had agreed to withdraw its proposal to double DVD pay, which had been a stumbling block in negotiations, producers refused to make concessions in other key areas. Among other things, producers refused to grant the union jurisdiction for most new-media writing, the guild said. They also insisted on a proposal that would allow them to reuse movies or TV shows on any platform for promotional purposes with no residual payment.
"This proposal alone destroys residuals," the guild said.
Sunday's talks marked the most substantial meeting since the parties began protracted negotiations this summer, raising a glimmer of hope that a deal might be within reach.
Back-channel efforts by some of the industry's top writers and chief executives appeared to break a logjam that had stopped the sides from starting the negotiations in earnest.
The apparent headway came amid outside pressure from such respected writers as "ER" creator John Wells, a former guild president, and "Desperate Housewives" executive producer Marc Cherry as well as News Corp. President Peter Chernin, Warner Bros. Entertainment Chairman Barry Meyer and Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger.
A federal mediator brought in last week had coaxed both sides back to the table Sunday.
But ultimately, not enough progress was made to avert a strike.
Even as negotiators were hunkered down behind closed doors, strike captains were sending e-mail notices to guild members and guild directors, informing them where to show up today on the picket lines.
Earlier in the day, writers at the guild's West Coast headquarters in the Fairfax district had loaded their picket signs onto trucks.
The union had organized a network of 300 strike captains who were ready to stage daily pickets at all the major studios, including Disney and Warner Bros. as well as CBS Television City and NBC headquarters in Burbank.
Guild members were asked to sign up for shifts beginning at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m., captains said. The guild's East Coast office went on strike at 12:01 eastern time even as talks were still continuing on the West Coast.
"When we asked if they would stop the clock for the purpose of delaying the strike to allow negotiations to continue, they refused," Counter said.
Chief negotiator David Young, a former organizer of garment workers, carpenters and construction workers, has spent months organizing and mobilizing his members to prepare them for a showdown. That was in evidence Thursday night when 3,000 writers jammed the Los Angeles Convention Center in what was more like a pep rally than a general membership meeting.
Young and Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, have also reached out for support from the Teamsters, whose truck drivers, casting directors and location managers could play a key role in disrupting productions where WGA pickets are set up.
A strike would immediately affect more than 10,000 film and TV writers nationwide, the majority of whom appear to be determined to wage a long fight.
"These are some of the most important issues writers have faced in many years," said Dan E. Fesman, a writer for "NCIS." "If we don't get these protections now, then we don't know what our futures are going to be."