By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/15/2007 10:17:56 AM ET 2007-10-15T14:17:56

Hollywood may be the city where dreams come true, but sometimes, it can be a real battle to make those dreams a reality. One of those heated fights is going on right now as the Writers Guild of America is embroiled in contentious contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. A writers' strike is possible if the studios and scribes can't reach agreement by Oct. 31, when the current contract expires.

Of course, deals in Tinseltown are never easy, but the differences this time around seem more irreconcilable than ever. The main issue behind the disagreement is the same one causing major upheavals throughout the entertainment industry: technology. More specifically, the Internet and other new media.

Coming into the negotiations, the union asked to reopen the issue of writers' compensation for work distributed through the Internet and other non-traditional platforms, said Carl DiOrio, deputy film editor at The Hollywood Reporter, who has covered the labor negotiations extensively.

The producers essentially tried to table the issue, suggesting a three-year study period instead.

"Because that was their chief priority, that wasn't taken well by the guild," DiOrio said.

Then the producers came back with a proposed revision to the way they calculate residual payments, which is how writers are compensated for subsequent showings of a work, such as reruns. Under the new plan, studios would be able to recoup certain basic costs, including production costs, before paying out residuals. The Writers Guild considered this a step backward (a "rollback proposal," according to an official statement) and rejected it outright.

But the studios' alliance has refused to take that proposal off the table, according to DiOrio, leading to the current impasse.

"So far the AMPTP has not been serious," the Writers Guild said in a statement issued Thursday.

"The two sides are fundamentally apart as to what data is truly relevant to the negotiations," the producers' group said in a statement. The two groups are scheduled to meet again Tuesday.

Strike Three?
So what happens if the Oct. 31 deadline passes without a deal? Will there actually be a strike?

The Writers Guild is certainly preparing for that eventuality, issuing aggressive new strike rules that would ban not only feature film, TV and new media work for its members, but also animated features, even though the latter are technically covered by a different union. (The new rules are still unofficial at least until the guild members formally authorize a strike, which they are expected to do soon.)

Studios are also girding themselves for a walkout, stockpiling scripts and rushing to finish up projects that are in the works.

"We fear that there's going to be a strike; they seem to be determined to strike," AMPTP spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti said. "We have contingency plans for that strike, so while we continue to hope for the best, we're prepared for the worst."

Representatives for the Writers Guild were not available for comment beyond their prepared statement.

The last time the guild went on strike, for five months in 1988, the networks had to delay their fall TV seasons and studios lost an estimated $500 million. It seems unlikely that a strike now would have as dramatic an impact, however, as the profusion and wide acceptance among audiences of reality programming gives the studios an obvious source of content to fill the television gap.

"That is clearly how the television-side executives are preparing for the prospect of a strike," DiOrio said. "They're preparing additional reality programming of all sorts."

Brogliatti confirmed this, adding that sports programming, game shows, news and old movies are additional options TV execs are sure to consider.

"There's a lot of alternative programming you can have that is not scripted," she said. Because of feature films' long production times, she added, a writers' walkout would probably would not be felt by the moviegoing public until 2009.

The director effect
One factor that could affect not only whether the writers' guild calls a strike, but also how long any strike might last is the looming Directors Guild of America contract renegotiation.

The contracts with the Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild don't expire until June 30, but the directors have a history of early contract talks. The Directors Guild could begin discussions with the studios as early as mid-November. If those negotiations go well, it could make things harder for the writers.

"The DGA could … come in and set a pattern," Brogliatti said, "and if they make a deal and make a reasonable deal, I guess then it would be hard for the WGA to keep its members out on strike."

The fact that the studios are not only looking to make a deal only with the Writers' Guild could weaken the writers' WGA's position. As Brogliatti puts it, "We have four other guilds to do. If you reach an impasse, then there's nothing to negotiate and you move on to the next [guild]."

All of which means that there might be a whole lot more "Fear Factor" and "Wife Swap" in our future.

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