Hollywood writers edge closer to strike

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LOS ANGELES, Nov 2 (Reuters) Leaders of the union representing US screenwriters were expected to formally call a strike today against film and television studios in a move that would shatter two decades of Hollywood labor peace.

The negotiating committee of the Writers Guild of America announced its unanimous recommendation for a walkout at a closed membership meeting last night, hours after the three-year contract covering the union's 12,000 members expired.

The WGA's governing board met today to consider that recommendation, and ''we believe there will be an endorsement of it,'' guild spokeswoman Sherry Goldman told Reuters.

It was unclear whether guild leaders would declare a strike immediately or call for a walkout to begin next week, which would give the writers and studios one last chance to try to hammer out a deal and avert a work stoppage.

Reports suggested that writers, who are demanding a bigger cut of DVD and Internet revenues, could be instructed later in the day to down pens and form picket lines as early as Monday.

''There's an impasse and there's no progress,'' comedy writer David Garrett said after Thursday's meeting, which the WGA said was attended by 3,000 members. ''It's about all we can do.'' The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining arm of the studios, said in a statement that the union's strike recommendation was not a surprise.

''We are ready to meet and are prepared to close this contract this weekend,'' said the group's president, Nick Counter.

The last major Hollywood strike was a WGA walkout in 1988 that lasted 22 weeks, delayed the start of the fall TV season and cost the industry an estimated 500 million dollar. Los Angeles economist Jack Kyser said a strike of the same duration today would result in at least one billion dollar in economic losses.

Movie and TV audiences would notice little impact at first. The screenplay pipeline of the major film studios is well-stocked through 2008. And producers of prime-time sitcoms and dramas are said to have stockpiled enough advance episodes to keep their shows on the air until January or February.

LETTERMAN VS. COWARDS But late-night talks shows will go off the air almost immediately since they rely on a daily supply of topical jokes. On his CBS show yesterday, David Letterman described the producers as ''cowards, cutthroats and weasels.'' Prime-time schedules will start filling up with more reruns and game shows after the networks have burned through fresh episodes.

The new shows fighting to hold viewers' attention in the first few weeks of the new season face a grim future if they have to leave the schedule for an extended period.

Negotiations on a new labor accord for writers began in July and the two sides have remained far apart. Two weeks ago, union leaders won approval from members to call a strike if necessary once their contract expired.

The two sides brought in a federal mediator this week to try to break the deadlock on the key issue of remuneration in the digital age.

The studios have said union demands for higher residuals on DVDs and Internet downloads would stifle growth at a time of rising production costs, tighter profit margins and piracy threats. They insist that digital distribution of movies and TV remains largely experimental or promotional and new-media business models are just developing.

The union accuses the studios of pleading poverty and argues that writers have never gotten a fair deal on the lucrative DVD industry.

They also see more of film and TV migrating toward the Internet and wireless platforms and want a bigger piece of that revenue pie.

Reuters PBB GC0353

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