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Writers guild announces tentative contract deal with producers

NEW YORK – The leaders of the Writers Guild of America recommended Saturday that striking screenwriters approve a tentative contract offer, paving the way for what could be a swift end to a labor impasse now in its fourth month.

Thousands of WGA members were summoned to meetings in New York and Los Angeles to discuss the planned pact with the television networks and movie studios, and the early response from the East Coast writers was consistently favorable.

“It sounds really positive and I think we negotiated a good deal,” Seth Meyers, one of the head writers on “Saturday Night Live,” said after the New York meeting. “I think we were right about the things we struck for.”

Assuming the larger meeting with Los Angeles screenwriters goes as well, the WGA negotiating committee is scheduled to meet this morning and endorse the deal to the WGA’s board, guild sources said.

If the board approves the pact, it also could rule that the strike be lifted immediately – even before the WGA membership votes to ratify the deal. That means writers could be back at their keyboards as early as Monday morning, with late-night talk shows becoming the first TV shows able to resume production with guild members.

If writers begin returning to their jobs Monday, as expected, Meyers said, his show could be back on the air within two weeks. A limited number of sitcoms and dramas – which went into reruns as the strike rolled on – could be back on the air with fresh episodes within a month, industry officials said.

When the 12,000-member screenwriters union went on strike Nov. 5, production on most TV talk shows stopped immediately, and new episodes of scripted TV series were exhausted in the following weeks. While feature film production was not affected as dramatically, estimates of the strike’s economic impact have ranged from $380 million to $1.5 billion.

The tentative WGA deal – which includes some minor but important gains in how screenwriters are paid for material shown over the Internet – largely is patterned on a recent pact struck between the Directors Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining entity for the networks and studios.

Like the directors, writers would receive a fixed residual payment of $1,200 a year for one-hour shows streamed online under the first two years of the new contract. In the third year of the deal, however, they would receive something directors do not: residuals equal to 2 percent of the revenue received by the program’s distributor.

Carmen Culver, a writer for movies and miniseries, said the deal was complicated.

“There were some parts I was very happy about and others less so,” she said. “But I’m extremely proud of the guild for hanging tough. It’s a great day for the labor movement. We have really stood up and said to these corporations that it all begins with the word.”

Filmmaker Michael Moore came out of the New York meeting more enthusiastic than when he entered.

“This is an historic moment for labor in this country,” Moore said. “To have the writers union stand up like we did, not give back a single thing and make them give – it was a really great moment to sit in there and listen to everything.”

In an e-mail sent to guild members early Saturday, WGA leaders said the three-year deal made significant strides toward ensuring that the writers get a fair cut of new-media revenues.

“It is an agreement that protects a future in which the Internet becomes the primary means of both content creation and delivery,” the guild message said. “We believe that continuing to strike now will not bring sufficient gains to outweigh the potential risks and that the time has come to accept this contract and settle the strike.”

The tentative agreement includes a doubling of the residual rate for movies and TV shows sold online and secures the union’s jurisdiction over content created specifically for the Web, above certain budget thresholds. Like directors, writers also would receive a 3.5 percent increase in minimum pay rates for television and film scripts work.

Warren Leight, executive producer of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” said he believed the agreement achieved one major goal.

“The reason for this strike was to make sure we had coverage of the Internet, that it didn’t become a guild-free zone, and I think we accomplished that,” he said. “I wish some of the things that network programming got also applied to variety and cable.

“I think some people will push for more,” Leight added. “But it becomes one of those analyses: How much more can you get for how much more pain?”

Andrew Smith, a writer for “The View,” said he was suspicious of the agreement because he doesn’t trust the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. But he said that if the WGA leaders recommend that the members back it, he would go along.

“I’m broke and I want to get back to work Monday,” Smith said. “Everybody had a date in their head, probably Feb. 1, that if the strike wasn’t settled, they would have to do something radical, like go fi-core (declare ‘financial core,’ a lower level of union membership). So I think everybody’s ready. But on the other hand, I don’t want the other side to take advantage of that.”