Hollywood Screenwriters' Strike Looms

Unions representing television and movie writers go back to the bargaining table with studio representatives after months of contentious labor talks. But a strike seems likely. The writers want a share of the profits that studios get from new media productions such as DVDs.

The entertainment business is being dramatically changed by new technologies, and that, screenwriters say, entitles them to a bigger share of the profits once their work is streamed, downloaded, or issued in any other format.

Screenwriters are convinced that they never received their fair share of money from the bustling DVD market, for example, and are demanding a bigger slice of earnings from the new media industry.

But the studio executives contend that nobody knows what kind of revenue these new technologies will generate. They suggested a study of future business prospects, saying that kind of analysis would provide a better basis for negotiation.

The writers don't care for that approach, according to Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

"They said, 'No, we're not interested in doing something intelligent. We'll just throw darts in the dark and let the chips fall where they may,'" Counter said.

Not so, said Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild West: "Our basic mantra is if they get paid, we get paid."

It's clear, he adds, that writers are entitled to a piece of whatever profit the studios can wring from new technologies — even if it doesn't turn out to be that much.

"Our proposals are all revenue based. Again, if they get paid, we get paid. If they don't get paid, then we don't," emphasizes Verrone.

The studios have been preparing for a strike for some time now. Networks have ordered extra episodes of some shows and they have non-union reality shows waiting in the wings. So if a strike happens, viewers will probably be treated to an even greater supply of dancing, singing and weight-losing contests.

That won't make the networks immune to effects of a strike, Verrone said.

"These CEOs who run the major networks realize as well as anyone that their ability to compete with one another is not a formula that includes all reality all the time," he said.

Whether the studios are hurt is irrelevant for some writers. They are far more interested in how a strike would affect them.

The last strike was in 1988 and lasted for five months.

Guild member Janis Hirsch, a veteran of sitcoms, including Murphy Brown and Will & Grace, remembers attending a union meeting back then.

"I saw grown men weeping because they had lost their homes, they'd lost everyting," Hirsch said.

Though she would like to be paid when her work is used in new formats, it is not worth another debilitating strike.

"I can't complain. Would I like more? Sure. Who wouldn't? Who wouldn't like more money? But I'm being, I think, fairly compensated," she said.

The guild has asked members for authorization to call a strike, and Verrone is confident that it will be approved.

That means a walkout could come any time after the current contract expires at the end of the month.

That's sooner than expected. The Directors and Screen Actors guilds have agreements that expire at the end of June; and members of the Writers Guild were planning to work under their old contract until then so that they could lock arms in negotiations.

But they've concluded it might be better to give the studios less time to stockpile scripts.

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