Film, TV Writers Strike Talks at Impasse

The contract talks between the striking screenwriters and the production studios are ground to a halt. The latest round of contract negotiations collapsed Friday, and the prospect of the two sides coming to an agreement in the near future seems increasingly dim. The strike began Nov. 5.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You know there's an old saying that politics is show business for ugly people. Now let's get an update on show business for the beautiful people. Nominations for the Golden Globe Awards were announced today, and people in Hollywood are asking is anybody going to be writing the awards shows? There is a writer strike on and producers of the Golden Globe and the Oscars are hoping that striking screenwriters will get waivers to help them out.

NPR's Kim Masters is covering the writers strike. And I noticed nobody seems to be talking about the strike ending.

KIM MASTERS: No. I'm afraid it looks like we're really in for the long haul. The talks broke down about a week ago, and it seems that the rhetoric has heated up again.

INSKEEP: Wouldn't the studios by this point be concerned, because you have productions that are shutting down, you have award ceremonies you'd like to do, you have TV programs that you're not getting on the air? People are losing money here, aren't they?

MASTERS: Yes. There's a very dangerous game going on, but the studios also do have something to gain. For example, some of them are relatively strike-proof. One of them in particular - that would be FOX. They have "American Idol," which is their normal programming for January. It's not only the ultimate strike-proof show, it's the ultimate television show.

INSKEEP: Strike-proof because you don't need a writer. You've got all these amateurs putting on your program for you.

MASTERS: It is not covered by the Writers Guild. And reality shows, which we'll be seeing a lot of, are not covered.

INSKEEP: Doesn't somebody write the wicked jokes for the judges?

MASTERS: Why, no. Those are all spontaneous improvisations, Steve.

INSKEEP: Of course, silly me, silly me. I'm sorry, go on.

MASTERS: Other places, for example, Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers doesn't have a television network. They don't have to worry about their shows on their network shutting down. They do have a television studio, but they're also saddled with a lot of very expensive deals, notably one for JJ Abrams, a very prominent writer-director. They can offload these deals if the strike is in effect and they declare force majeure.

INSKEEP: Force majeure, that means they can get out of the deal because of extenuating circumstances?

MASTERS: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Okay. But still, the studios are losing money if they're not making these deals, or they're not making money anyway. Do they really feel the stakes are this high?

MASTERS: Some of the guys on the ground here at Hollywood, they would like to get back to their relationships, which are becoming, of course, very bitter and strained as the strike drags on. But for the bosses, and bear in mind, NBC is owned by GE. ABC is owned by Disney. These are big companies with lots of different businesses. And they are looking at the network business and the network business in particular is sick.

So you see NBC is now having to refund money for ads because they're not getting the ratings, and that was happening before the strike. So they're looking around and saying, you know what, our business isn't working, so we may as well hold out and fight off the writers. And then there's another factor, which are they're looking at other labor contracts that are going to have to be resolved, and they want to set an example now.

INSKEEP: Well, are the writers any closer to bending or breaking?

MASTERS: It's very hard to say. I mean, right now I think that the writers feel that this is a hugely important battle. This is over money from the Internet. Everybody feels that eventually all entertainment is going to be flowing through the Internet. And if the writers don't get on that bus right now, they'll have a repeat of what happened to them with DVDs, where they were convinced to make a deal because it was a new technology and they never ever got a piece of the DVDs that they felt that they deserved.

INSKEEP: Do you have writers who are in serious financial trouble at some point?

MASTERS: Oh, not just writers. I mean, there are all kinds of below-the-line people, what they call below-the-line people, the crew. I mean and the people who do the hair and the makeup. As we've heard, these people are all losing their incomes. They were marching in Hollywood last weekend. They didn't even want the writers to come and march with them because they feel that the writers at this point are part of the problem because negotiations are broken down.

INSKEEP: Has anybody proposed any kind of solution, even if people have not embraced it yet?

MASTERS: Well, that's the thing. I mean, people do feel that there is a solution and that somewhere in there there's a number of - a percentage of Internet revenues that would make sense. But the problem is that since there seems to be so little interest in finding that number, that's where we get to the suspicion that perhaps the studios are just as happy, at least some of them, to allow this to continue.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kim Masters, thanks very much.

MASTERS: Thank you.

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