The guild that represents film and television writers has called a meeting in Los Angeles on Thursday night, and many observers believe that a strike is imminent.
The writers have been negotiating off and on with entertainment-industry producers since the summer, and those negotiations have been acrimonious. The writers' contract expired last night — and members have authorized the guild to call a walkout at any time.
The writers, represented by the Writers Guild of America, want a bigger share of the profits from DVDs as well as other new-media productions of their work for cell phones and other handheld devices.
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.
But members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — the studios — contend that nobody knows what kind of revenue these new technologies will generate.
The studios offered to conduct a study analyzing the impact of new media, but the writers rejected that idea. They maintain that they should get a piece of anything the studios make from new media.
"Our basic mantra is if they get paid, we get paid," Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild West, said in a recent interview.
The writers seem poised to strike sooner rather than later. They were planning to hold off on a labor action until June. That's when the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America are due to negotiate new contracts; and if they were to strike, then the Writers Guild would join in sympathy.
That plan may be undercut, however, by the Directors Guild cutting its own deal early — something that has happened before — and by giving studios the opportunity to stock up on material in anticipation of a strike.
(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 could see more dancing, singing and weight-losing contests.)
If the writers do walk out in the next few days, studios would be left with projects in progress. They'd have to put those projects on hold — or cancel them.
Since movies take more time to produce, the effects of a strike probably won't be visible on the big screen for more than a year. But on television, viewers will see repeats of shows such as the late-night comedy genre right away.
The networks have been hustling to put together episodes of existing scripted shows, but with their audiences already fragmenting, weak programming will hurt.
Sensing an opportunity, Warner Bros. is offering broadcasters a chance to buy reruns of its cable series The Closer, which has never been aired on a broadcast network.
Meanwhile, NBC is considering running the original British version of The Office.