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Striking writers and studios break off talks again

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Days after sounding a brief note of conciliation, studio bosses and striking screenwriters broke off contract talks again on Friday, dashing hopes the two sides were getting closer to settling the worst Hollywood labor crisis in two decades.

Striking writers wear hats in the rain during at a Writers Guild of America rally at FreeemantleMedia in Burbank, California, December 7, 2007. FreemantleMedia produces reality television programs, and the writers guild is seeking to represent reality show writers. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

News that four straight days of negotiations had collapsed in acrimony came in a sharply worded statement issued late in the day by the studios’ bargaining arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

The studios blamed leaders of the Writers Guild of America for making “unreasonable demands that are roadblocks to real progress.”

“We’re disappointed to report that talks between the AMPTP and WGA have broken down yet again,” the studios’ statement said. “We’re puzzled and disheartened by an ongoing WGA negotiating strategy that seems designed to delay or derail talks rather than facilitate an end to this strike.”

The Writers Guild said the studio negotiators stormed off after the union refused to accept an “ultimatum” to give up several of its proposals in order to keep bargaining.

“This was clearly a setup,” WGA chief negotiator David Young told Reuters. “This was a fake negotiation, so they could come in, and blame it on us, be intransigent, bang on the table and march out.”

About 10,500 WGA members have been on strike since earlier talks collapsed on November 5 in a dispute that hinges on how much the writers should be paid for work used on the Internet.

The strike has halted production on dozens of TV shows, including most of the major networks’ prime-time series, as well as several movies. Thousands of non-writing film and TV workers have been idled along with the WGA members on picket lines.

Two days ago, the WGA issued an upbeat statement saying the parties had engaged in “substantive discussions of the issues important to writers” for the first time since negotiations began in July.

The AMPTP also struck a more cordial tone in recent days, declaring its proposals were not meant as “take-it-or-leave-it” offers and the parties could find common ground.

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But Friday’s round of finger-pointing indicated the two sides remained far from a deal.

The union said the main sticking points in the latest talks centered on payments sought by writers for content delivered over the Internet and wireless devices such as cell phones.

Both parties have accused the other of failing to budge from their positions on new-media compensation.

The studios also said the WGA had muddied the waters with other issues, such as demanding jurisdiction over reality TV and animation -- a sign they said that union leaders “are on an ideological mission far removed from the interests of their members.”

Young said the studios, too, still had demands on the table they know the writers will reject. “That’s a red herring,” he said. “The real issue in this negotiation is new media.”

At this point, Young said, the union would be open to holding separate talks with any of the “more reasonable” studios willing to break ranks with the AMPTP.

“I think there’s deep divisions within their ranks, and the intransigent folks won out today,” he said.

Both sides left open the door to renewing negotiations, but no sessions were immediately scheduled.

Meanwhile, a group of more than 300 filmmakers, most of whom are Writers Guild members, have asked the Directors Guild of America to hold off on launching its own contract talks with studios while the WGA remains in negotiations.

The Directors Guild is widely seen as more sympathetic to the studios and less militant than the Writers Guild, whose negotiating position could be undermined if the AMPTP strikes a deal first with the directors. The DGA contract expires next June.

A union spokeswoman said the writer-directors made their request in a letter delivered on Thursday. Signatories included such leading filmmakers as Joel and Ethan Coen, Ed Zwick, Lawrence Kasdan and Sean Penn.

The DGA spokeswoman said the AMPTP had not approached the Directors Guild about starting early contract talks.