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Hollywood Writers Threaten to Strike

Hollywood writers said they would strike for the first time in nearly 20 years but left open the door for last-minute talks to avert a crippling walkout.

The Writers Guild of America
AP
The Writers Guild of America

Writers Guild of America President Patric Verrone drew loud cheers when he announced in closed-door session Thursday night that the union could strike as early as Sunday, several writers told The Associated Press.

However, guild officials said privately the strike would most likely start on Monday.

The WGA board was to meet Friday morning to approve the strike and set a time for the first picket lines. A strike captains' meeting was set for Saturday morning.

Union leaders said they would delay the action if producers showed movement in contract negotiations -- especially on the key issue of paying writers when TV episodes are sold or streamed over the Internet.

"It's going to have to be a good deal, but we would much rather negotiate than go on strike," WGA chief negotiator John Bowman said.

Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, said in a statement the alliance was not surprised by the strike announcement.

"We are ready to meet and are prepared to close this contract this weekend," he said.

First Casualty

The first casualty of the strike will likely be late-night talk shows, which are dependent on current events to fuel monologues and other entertainment.

The strike will not immediately impact film or prime-time TV production. Most studios have stockpiled dozens of movie scripts, and TV shows have enough scripts or completed shows in hand to last until early next year.

About 3,000 of the union's 12,000 members attended Thursday's meeting. Writers said the line of questioning inside the meeting wasn't whether the group was going to strike, but how the job action would be carried out.

"Where the membership stands could not be more clear," said Carlton Cuse, an executive producer of the television drama "Lost" and a member of the guild negotiating committee. "There was not a single dissenting voice in the room."

Guild members already had authorized their negotiators to call the first strike since 1988. That strike lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry about $500 million.

The mood was more subdued as writers filed out of the building and headed to their cars.

High Stakes

Janis Hirsch, a veteran TV writer, was among the 10 percent who had voted against striking.

"It's sad, but I've got to support my union. At this point it makes sense," she said.

The stakes are high for writers, actors and directors. While the revenue generated by Internet sales and rentals of films and TV shows is minuscule compared to DVDs, the guilds say Internet revenue eventually will become dominant.

Consumers are expected to spend $16.4 billion on DVDs this year, according to Adams Media Research.

By contrast, studios could generate about $158 million from selling movies online and about $194 million from selling TV shows over the Web.

"Every incremental window of distribution has added revenue and profitability to the business model," said Anthony DiClemente, an entertainment analyst for Lehman Brothers Equity Research. "Digital is likely to be a positive thing for the studios."

Studios argue that it is too early to know how much money they can make from offering entertainment on the Internet, cell phones, iPods and other devices.

Producers are uncertain whether consumers prefer a pay-per-view model over an advertising-supported system. They want the economic flexibility to experiment as consumer habits change in reaction to technology.