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Private overtures led to strike breakthrough

Living-room meetings cut through animosity in writers walkout.

February 12, 2008|Richard Verrier and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

Studio executives and leaders of the Writers Guild of America were barely on speaking terms a month ago when John Bowman took matters into his own hands.

The head of the guild's negotiating committee, a onetime writer on "Saturday Night Live," Bowman asked a talent agent friend to arrange a private meeting with adversaries in Hollywood's languishing labor talks.

Days later, on Jan. 10, Bowman found himself in the living room of Peter Chernin's Santa Monica home, sipping Scotch with the News Corp. president and two of his allies -- Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer and CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves.

The men made small talk; Bowman mentioned he had coached Moonves' son in Little League baseball. Then, the conversation turned serious.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 13, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Writers strike: A front-page story Tuesday on how the Writers Guild of America contract came together incorrectly described the affiliation of Peter Landesman. Landesman is not a member of a group within the guild known as the Dirty 30 but is part of another dissident faction.

Poor communications, they all agreed, had helped trigger a strike that had shut down TV production, thrown thousands of people out of work and threatened to turn next fall's TV season into chaos.

"It was an ice-breaker," Bowman said.

The two-hour meeting kick-started labor negotiations that culminated in a tentative three-year contract that is likely to end today a three-month strike and be ratified next week by the 10,500 members of the guild covered by the contract.

Approval of the deal would drop the curtain on one of the most hostile -- and costly -- labor battles in Hollywood memory. At stake: future revenue from the distribution and sale of movies and TV shows in the digital age. The battle pitted content creators against the corporate giants that control it.

Even before talks first began on a new contract in July, animosity bordering on loathing between the guild's chief negotiator, David Young, and the studios' point man, Nick Counter, hobbled the chances of any fruitful exchanges.

A veteran organizer of garment and construction workers, Young was a brash newcomer to Hollywood, while the confrontational Counter had scores of contracts under his belt over a two-decade tenure as the industry's chief labor negotiator.

They couldn't even agree on how many chairs should be in the room.

At a meeting in October, days before the writers' contract was to expire, Counter showed up at the guild's West Coast headquarters with an entourage of 20 labor relations executives. Young was taken aback. He had planned for half that many -- and had only eight on his side of the table.

Young wouldn't budge from his chair, leaving Counter's posse standing. Out of embarrassment, "Desperate Housewives" writer Marc Cherry got up and rummaged through the building for more chairs.

The talks went nowhere. The WGA contract expired at midnight on Halloween and writers walked off the job the following week. Thousands were tireless on the picket lines.

But as the holidays approached, the euphoria gave way to dread of a long, financially crippling strike. Paychecks had stopped for countless idled makeup artists, grips, set designers and production crews. The domino effect rippled through the broader local economy, affecting everyone from waitresses to dentists.

Spirits sank further when the Directors Guild of America, growing impatient with the lack of progress made by the writers, seized the initiative and opened their own talks in early January on a new contract with studios.

Because of the directors' track record in previous labor talks, writers feared that the DGA -- which represents movie and TV directors as well as thousands of production crew members -- would give in to studio demands.

What the directors were cooking up was on Bowman's mind when he met with studio executives at Chernin's house. Would the studio bosses hold off dealing with the directors until the writers had another shot, Bowman asked. No dice, Chernin told him. The writers' window had closed.

Writers in revolt

With the WGA shut out and the DGA days away from a pact, factions within the writers union became more vocal.

One group of writers, known as the Dirty 30, on Jan. 14 had crammed into the Beverly Hills living room of "American Dreams" writer Jonathan Prince. It was not a solidarity meeting. Some of the writers had just lost million-dollar TV development contracts as studios cut them loose. Word was leaking that the directors were on the cusp of a new contract after only a week of negotiations.

Seated in the middle of the room were two members of the guild's negotiating committee: Robert King, who wrote the 2000 film "Vertical Limit," and sitcom writer Howard Gould. The question to them: Why couldn't the WGA make progress and what was the leadership's game plan?

Some writers warned they were ready to place an ad in a Hollywood trade paper urging WGA leaders to embrace the directors' deal. King and Gould talked them out of it.

But some members of the dissident group continued to quietly press their case.

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