Hollywood writers, studios reach tentative 3-year pact

Union members to vote on what its negotiators call $41 million in gains


LOS ANGELES - After nearly four months of frequently tense negotiations, Hollywood writers and studios reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract yesterday, all but certainly averting a strike that economists warned could have cost this city as much as $500 million a week.

The contract includes economic gains of $41 million for screenwriters and television writers over the next three years, according to negotiators for the Writers Guild of America, who still have to present the terms to the union's more than 11,000 members for ratification.

"People told us that it couldn't be done, even if we stayed on strike for a year or more. Today we are announcing an agreement that includes groundbreaking improvements, and it has been accomplished without a strike," a smiling Mike Mahern, co-chairman of the WGA negotiating committee, said in announcing the tentative pact at the Writers Guild's offices late yesterday afternoon.

Studio negotiators and executives, including Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks, and Sherry Lansing, chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures, also were present for the announcement.

Key gains for writers in their agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers include increases in the amount they will be paid when their work airs on foreign television and when they write for cable television shows and for pay TV networks, including HBO and Showtime.

On that score, the writers made significant headway in pushing for increased compensation in an industry being rapidly transformed by the proliferation of cable networks, and technology, such as the Internet and DVDs.

Under the contract, for instance, Fox Broadcasting, which had won the right to pay reduced residuals to writers when it was first launched, becomes a full-fledged network, and must pay full network residuals in two years.

Nick Counter, president of the producers' group, said the rapid industry changes made for "one of the most difficult negotiations" in years.

Writers said that the new pact includes key improvements not just in the way they are paid but in the way they are treated in Hollywood.

Hollywood writers have always complained about their second-class citizenship within the industry - about how they often lost all control of their work as soon as they finished writing and were not included in cast meetings or premieres of their work.

Yesterday's agreement requires for the first time that writers be invited to premieres, cast and crew events and to the so-called press junkets in which movies and shows are presented to the news media.

The agreement also makes it a requirement that they get more space in the press kits given out to the news media.

It also suggests in a list of "preferred practices" that writers be welcome on the sets of their projects and at the first cast readings, and that directors meet with writers before deciding to replace them. However, directors retain the right to decide whether to fol- low those practices or not.

But the writers' union was unable to get the studios to agree on one key issue - their desire to rein in the use of the "Film By" credit, in which directors are allowed essentially to claim complete ownership of movies in screen credits and promotional material.

Hollywood actors, who are represented by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio, could go out on strike when their contract expires June 30. But the writers' pact is thought to greatly diminish the chance of that strike, especially since many of the issues are similar.

Yesterday, SAG and AFTRA issued a statement saying, "We are confident we can emulate this significant accomplishment of reaching an agreement without a work stoppage."

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who met in recent weeks with owners of local small businesses to illustrate how a strike would have a devastating effect across the local economy, was celebrating his 71st birthday in Acapulco, Mexico, yesterday. But in a statement issued by his office, he said: "A cloud has been lifted from the Los Angeles economy, and tens of thousands of Angelenos will breathe a sigh of relief."

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