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By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Film and television writers voted decisively on Tuesday to lift their 100-day-old strike against major studios and return to work on Wednesday, formally ending the worst labor clash to hit Hollywood in 20 years.
The outcome, while not unexpected, was greeted with relief by an entertainment community shaken for months by rancor and uncertainty, especially in the television industry where thousands of production workers ended up furloughed because of the strike.
WGA members will vote later on a proposed three-year contract, which provides new payments to writers for work streamed on the Internet and doubles rates they earn for films and TV shows resold as Internet downloads. It also extends the union’s contract to cover made-for-Web content.
The back-to-work order was approved by 92.5 percent of the the Writers Guild of America members who cast ballots in Los Angeles and New York two days after union leaders voted to endorse their contract settlement with the studios.
Guild leaders immediately sent an e-mail letter to some 10,500 writers who walked off the job on Nov. 5 instructing them to return to work on Wednesday.
“The strike is over,” WGA West President Patric Verrone declared at a news conference at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, which served as one of the polling stations. “Our members have voted, and writers can go back to work.”
A total of 3,775 WGA members took part in the vote, down from the record turnout of more than 5,500 who voted in October when writers authorized the union to call a strike.
Compensating writers for work in new media proved to be the main sticking point in the confrontation between WGA leaders and the eight major entertainment companies represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
“This is a day of relief and optimism for everyone in the entertainment industry,” the top executives of those companies said in a joint statement after the WGA vote was announced.
Last month, the companies concluded a separate labor pact with Hollywood directors, whose deal helped writers and studios overcome a lengthy stalemate in their talks. The WGA settlement was patterned closely after terms accepted by the directors.
Verrone reiterated that the WGA deal was not “perfect” but stressed key gains made in the burgeoning arena of digital media. He also acknowledged it could take five to 15 years for the fruits of the new contract to become fully apparent.
“I think it’s going to take a long time to really look back and see how much the Internet is worth,” he said.
The potential for further labor strife still hangs over Hollywood. The Screen Actors Guild, which represents some 120,000 film and TV performers, sees its contract with the studios come up for renewal in June, and SAG leaders have vowed to be aggressive at the bargaining table.
For now, however, the prevailing mood was one of relief, although a return to business as usual will come gradually.
The strike threw the U.S. television industry into turmoil, derailed several Hollywood movie productions and idled thousands of entertainment workers — from actors and directors to hairstylists, set designers and clerks.
The impact included more than $2 billion in lost wages and earnings in the Los Angeles area alone, more than half from damage to businesses like limousine services, florists, caterers and restaurants, according to official estimates.
The strike also overshadowed the industry’s annual awards season, forcing cancellation of the Golden Globes ceremony after actors threatened to boycott the event rather than cross picket lines to attend.
The settlement comes just in time for producers of the Oscar telecast, which is scheduled for Feb. 24. Oscar writers now have just 11 days to produce material that normally takes many weeks.
TV studios and networks are girding to resume work on dozens of scripted prime-time comedies and dramas knocked off the air by the strike, hoping to salvage what remains of the current broadcast season. However, idled production crews will remain sidelined for weeks while new scripts are prepared. (Additional reporting by Dean Goodman, editing by Todd Eastham and Bill Trott)