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DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES | Strike Talk Stirs AFI Fest, AFM; WGA Sets Walkout for Monday

DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES | Strike Talk Stirs AFI Fest, AFM; WGA Sets Walkout for Monday

A U.S. film business facing a downbeat DVD market, concerns about the distribution of entertainment via new media outlets, and criticism that there are simply too many movies being made, is dangerously close to a walkout by the 12,000 unionized writers who create most of the mainstream films and television shows commercially distributed by the Hollywood studios and national TV networks. Barring a last minute resolution over the weekend here in Hollywood, the strike will officially begin at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, November 5th.

Attendees at Thursday’s AFI Fest opening night premiere of Robert Redford‘s “Lions for Lambs” in Hollywood were already buzzing about a Writers Guild of America meeting being held across town when word came that the organization’s negotiating committee had recommended a strike by its members. The emerging director of an acclaimed indie film told a group at the after party that he hoped for a last minute resolution to the impasses between writers and executives. “I’d really like to make a second movie,” the filmmaker said simply. Writers have been told that come 12:01 a.m. on Monday, to use the words of a Guild promotional poster, “Pencils down means pencils down.” Many were wondering whether other industry unions, like the Teamsters, would respect the picket lines that will ring studio lots and TV networks on Monday. And some are expecting that even if members of the DGA and SAG don’t join the WGA strike immediately, they will be drawn in when their contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expire next year.

In a statement yesterday, Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa, said to union writers, “If the membership of the WGA is forced to strike, our union stands ready to support them in any way we can,” noting that while Teamsters are bound by contact to work, “Every Local 399 Teamster has the right to honor any picket line if it is raised at their place of employment without fear of reprisal from the studios.”

A 1998 strike by the Writers Guild of America lasted five months and is widely reported to have cost the entertainment industry $500 million. With that in mind, an established filmmaker, who recently finished writing a slew of new screenplays, vowed to keep working. During a conversation with indieWIRE, the writer/director admitted a serious plan to make an un-credited movie anonymously if necessary.

“In recent years, these conglomerates have enjoyed tremendous financial success off the backs of literally tens of thousands of people — including members of the creative community,” charged Writers Guild of America, West president Patric M. Verrone, during Friday’s strike announcement. “One part of that community is the writers, whose work serves as the blueprint for programs and movies. And, although the industry’s pie is continually growing, our share continues to shrink.”

One WGA member who was at Thursday night’s rousing meeting told indieWIRE that an AMPTP proposal characterizing TV shows streamed via the Internet as purely promotion, and not subject to revenue shares for the writers, was particularly irksome. Writers have also deadlocked on the size of residuals they should receive from DVD sales.

In Santa Monica today, some at the American Film Market made rounds of calls and monitored BlackBerry devices to learn the news from an WGA press conference where union leaders discussed the situation and called for the walkout. Others, however, seemed generally unfazed by the situation.

Dubbed the “Home of Independents,” the American Film Market features more than 500 films, many made outside the Hollywood system or overseas, with countless genre titles aimed at alternative distribution pipelines and markets. Run by the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA), the AFM features so-called “product” from more than 30 countries and event organizers have indicated that the coming industry strike in the U.S. many end up being an opportunity for many the event’s buyers and sellers.

Meanwhile, there are whispers circulating through the American independent filmmaking sector that relies on both Hollywood and independent companies for distribution that there may be a silver lining to the WGA strike.

“Generally a WGA strike affects indies less than a SAG strike would since most of our scripts are first-timers or not Guild writers,” one prolific independent producer told indieWIRE on Friday. “To look at the bright side, the films at Sundance this year could become worth more money if the studios nervously feel like they need our product for their pipelines.”

“The WGA’s call for a strike is precipitous and irresponsible,” responded AMPTP President Nick Counter this afternoon in Los Angeles, in a statement. After saying that writers are well paid, with top quality benefits, he said that the Guild is pursuing, “numerous unreasonable proposals that would result in astronomical and unjustified increases in our costs, further restrict our ability to produce, promote and market TV series and films, and prohibit us from experimenting with programming and business models in New Media.”

“This is not a decision we take lightly,” said Writers Guild of America, East president Michael Winship at today’s strike announcement. “In fact, we make it with great sadness. There is still time and a deal to be made before this strike begins. We urge the studios and networks to come back and bargain fairly.”

“Our goal continues to be to reach a fair and reasonable agreement that will keep the industry working,” responded AMPTP’s Counter late Friday, in a statement.

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