Writers break through producers wall

The writers’ union approach of fighting for agreements with independent producers as part of a strategy to force major studios back to the bargaining table appears to be working.

Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., the largest independent film studio, began talks Jan. 24 with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The company wants a temporary contract similar to those awarded by the union to Metro Goldwyn Mayer Inc.’s United Artists and Weinstein Co. The agreement, like those, would be superseded by an industry-wide contract when one is hammered out.

Another sign that the union’s strategy may be working is that the writers and major studios began Jan. 23 discussing ground rules for talks. Writers Guild spokesman Gregg Mitchell did not return calls seeking comment.

The New York Times reported Jan. 23 that an agreement between Lions Gate and the writers is close.

As the unity of the employers in the now 80-day strike began crumbling recently, six independent production companies have signed interim accords with the writers. They are MRC, Spyglass Entertainment and Worldwide Pants Inc., (David Letterman’s production company) as well as Jackson Bites, a new outfit started by “Bourne” film producer Doug Liman.

The strike began Nov. 5 with the writers seeking more pay for programs shown on Internet and mobile devices. Yet, due to the highly monopolized nature of the industry by mega corporations, writers found themselves fighting for an increase in say over productions and objectively weakening the grip of monopoly production companies over the entertainment industry.

The WGA paved the way for the beginning of preliminary talks with the major studios when it reportedly removed its demand Jan. 23 for jurisdiction over writers for reality and animated shows.

The militancy of the writers had already helped the Directors Guild of America make gains in an agreement it got Jan. 17 from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. That agreement increases pay for films and television shows sold on the Web.

Directors got a wage hike of three percent for primetime shows and daytime serials and 3.5 percent for other programming.

The writers’ ability to peel off Lions Gate from the once united front of producers is important because of the company’s reputation for success in the industry. The company makes the “Saw” horror flicks and produced “Crash,” winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 2005. It also produces “Weeds,” the drug dealing drama on CBS cable TV and produced “Madmen,” on American Movie Classics.

So far writers have, because of the strike, given up $211 million in pay. Eleven thousand additional film and TV workers have been idled. In Los Angeles, alone, the local economy has lost an estimated $1.6 billion.

Actors continue to support the striking writers.

“The thing I don’t understand is, we’re all in this business together, producers, entertainers, actors, writers, cameramen, set dressers, editors, crew – you name it,” Hal Holbrook, nominee for supporting actor in “Into the Wild,” told the L.A. Times Jan. 23.

“It takes all of us together to create the product being sold. What I don’t understand is, why should there be a reluctance to share the wealth?”

Meanwhile, the writers’ strike remains “the elephant in Oscar’s living room,” with the nominees themselves finding it hard to ignore. Nominees have to balance their joy with concern that the strike will dampen the Academy Award celebrations Feb. 24.

Sound Mixer Peter Karland told the Guild Reporter that he was “emotionally conflicted” about his nomination for work he did in “No Country for Old Men.”

“I’m perfectly happy to gloat about being nominated,” he said. “But it’s hard trying not to be too exuberant because all these people are out of work. I hope the strike gets settled pretty soon.”