Writers Guild Strike Nears End

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Charley Gallay / Getty

Actress Katherine Heigl marches to support the striking Writers Guild of America

Open enthusiasm replaced days of guarded optimism as Hollywood writers streamed out of a Writers Guild of America (WGA) meeting at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium Saturday night. WGA leaders recommended their members approve a contract offer from producers, suggesting a quick — but not immediate — end to the 14-week work stoppage that has crippled the entertainment industry since Nov. 5, interrupting production on television shows like 24 and Grey's Anatomy and costing up to $1.5 billion.

When negotiators shared details of the deal with writers Friday, many assumed they would be back at their laptops Monday. But WGA West President Patric Verrone told the more than 3,000 writers in attendance Saturday night that the strike would end only after they voted to approve the contract. With a vote of the WGA's 10,000 members likely to take until Tuesday, that means writers wouldn't return to work until Wednesday at the earliest.

"It had the feel of an awards show in there," says David Scarpa, writer of The Day The Earth Stood Still, as he exited the L.A. meeting, which followed an earlier, equally celebratory one in New York attended by some 500 WGA members. "There were a lot of standing ovations." The crowd cheered Verrone and negotiator David Young, as well as the Screen Actors Guild, for that union's solidarity with the writers over the last few months.

Most writers said the deal addressed their major concern: payment for work distributed on the Web and through cell phones, among other new media. Several said the strike was necessary to avoid missing out on the new revenue stream, a sacrifice they feel they made 20 years ago by settling for a small share of sales of DVDs, when that was a nascent format. "The guild really botched DVDs in the '80s," says one children's TV writer. "They were not gonna make the same mistake with the Internet. It comes down to not being screwed."

The tentative three-year WGA deal builds upon gains obtained by the Directors Guild of America in its negotiations with studios last month. Like the directors, writers will receive a fixed residual payment of $1,200 a year for one-hour shows streamed online in the first two years of the new contract. In the third year of the deal, however, they will get something directors didn't, residuals equal to 2% of the revenue received by the program's distributor. The agreement also doubles 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 budgets.

Three hours into the meeting, the negotiating team was still answering audience questions about the contract. "You're talking about complex calculus," says Karen Barna, writer of Step Up 2. "Writers aren't all that business-minded. We have people for that."

The prevailing feeling was that the painful labor impasse had earned the writers historic gains, despite failing to fulfill an early goal of winning jurisdiction over reality and animation writers. "The strike was worthwhile," says WGA member Keith Glover. "It needed to be done for the future." Unlike earlier writers' strikes, this one appears to have strengthened the guild, writers said. "The '80s strikes left the guild in acrimony and disarray," says Scarpa. "This time we're better off and more unified."

At a press conference Sunday, Verrone described the strike as "arguably the most successful" of the American labor movement in a decade, but said of the tentative deal, "It is not all that we hoped for and it is not all we deserve, but as I told our members, this strike was about the future and this deal assures for us and for future generations of writers a share in the future."

The WGA's negotiating committee and the guild's board have recommended the deal to members, and now the voting begins. But over the weekend, two TV writers saying goodnight in the Shrine Auditorium parking lot revealed some lingering confusion over their status. "See ya Monday, man," said one. The other looked back, puzzled. "Wait, it's Wednesday, right?"