Striking Hollywood writers rally as pressure mounts

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Thousands of Hollywood screenwriters on strike against film and TV studios rallied outside 20th Century Fox on Friday in their biggest collective show of force yet as pressure mounted on both sides to resume contract talks.

With the walkout in its fifth day, tensions also rose for popular TV hosts Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres, whose talk shows became the latest battlegrounds of a labor confrontation over how screenwriters get paid for work on the Internet.

DeGeneres drew a scathing rebuke from the East Coast wing of the Writers Guild of America for returning to work on her syndicated daytime show after honoring picket lines the first day of the strike.

But DeGeneres, a member of both the Writers Guild and its sister union for TV performers, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, drew support from AFTRA and producers of her show. Both denied WGA East claims the popular TV star was breaking strike rules.

Meanwhile, NBC said producers of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” were mulling a number of options for bringing that program back on the air, possibly with its first guest hosts since Leno took over the show 15 years ago if he refuses to cross the picket line himself.

The same was true, a network spokeswoman said, for NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “Last Call with Carson Daly.” All three NBC late-night shows went into immediate production hiatus, with reruns airing in their place, on the first day of the strike.

The non-writing staff of the three shows have been informed they face layoffs at the end of next week unless those shows return, NBC said.

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Still, the greatest impact of the strike continued to be on scores of prime-time television shows where production work has been thrown into disarray, especially after writer-producers in charge of those programs refused to cross picket lines.


The writer-producers, also called show runners, are themselves on strike as members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA). But management insists they are obligated as producers to continue performing non-writing duties.

After many show runners publicly rebuffed studio calls for them to return to work this week, the studios issued breach-of-contract notices informing them their producer salaries would be cut off and warning of possible legal action, industry sources said.

In a separate move widely seen as a hard-ball tactic by management, some studios also began suspending scores of long-term development deals with writer-producers.

While leaders of both sides in the dispute say they are willing to return to the bargaining table, no new talks have been scheduled. Studio representatives have indicated the union would have to put its strike on hold in order to resume negotiations, a move the union has so far rejected.

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Executives from the five leading Hollywood talent agencies met with union leaders on Thursday offering to act as go-betweens to help broker a deal, sources said.

The TV studios’ confrontation with its show runners became a focus of attention at a rally of roughly 4,000 striking writers and their supporters, some from other Hollywood talent unions, outside the headquarters of Fox studios on Friday.

“We’re shutting down production, and we’re kicking corporate ass!” WGA West President Patric Verrone told a boisterous crowd.

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“These companies can’t survive without us for long,” said Seth MacFarlane, creator and executive producer of the Fox animated comedy “Family Guy,” whose outspoken defiance of Fox studio has made him a cause celebre for striking writers.

He then added in the malevolent, erudite voice of the show’s precocious but evil baby character Stewie, “Victory will be ours,” eliciting huge cheers from the crowd.

The hour-long rally, and a march down Avenue of the Stars in Los Angeles’ Century City area, followed several days in which smaller groups of strikers fanned out all over town to form picket lines outside numerous production sites.

The Writers Guild launched its strike on Monday as last-ditch negotiations with studios on a new contract for its 12,000 members collapsed.

The talks deadlocked mostly on differences over the writers’ demands for a greater share of revenues from the Internet and other new media, widely seen as future distribution channels of choice for most entertainment.

While there has been no obvious impact yet on the feature film industry, work ground to an immediate halt on several prime-time series.

If the strike drags on, most scripted comedies and dramas are expected to shut down production by the end of November, though networks say they have enough advance episodes filmed to keep many shows on the air without repeats until December, January or even February.

The last major Hollywood strike was a 1988 walkout by the Writers Guild that lasted for 22 weeks, delayed the start of the fall TV season that year and ultimately cost the industry an estimated $500 million.