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Talks to Resume in Writers Strike

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LOS ANGELES The writers strike will continue, but now so will negotiations.

The WGA and studio reps are headed back to the bargaining table after back-channel dialogue facilitated by CAA partner Bryan Lourd helped put the parties onto a more productive track. The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers put out brief, identical statements Friday night that said contract talks would resume Nov. 26.

No other details were provided, and a press blackout was instituted. But it's clear that the emotion-charged issue of new-media compensation will remain front and center when the talks resume.

Despite the planned resumption of talks, the WGA intends to continue its picketing and other strike activities. Negotiations between the WGA and AMPTP broke down Nov. 4, and strike pickets took to studio gates the next day.

Picketing will take place as planned Monday and a big writers march is planned for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on Hollywood Boulevard. No strike activities will be held the balance of the week, but that's only because none had been scheduled due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Pickets will reappear the same day negotiations resume. WGA West president Patric Verrone alerted guild members during the weekend that their picketing obligations remain in place.

"This announcement is a direct result of your efforts ... the hours you have spent on the picket lines, the days you've spent educating friends and colleagues, the boundless energy you've put into engaging with not only the Hollywood talent community but people all over the country and the world," Verrone said.

"We must remember that returning to the bargaining table is only a start," he added. "Our work is not done until we achieve a good contract, and that is by no means assured. Accordingly, what we achieve in negotiations will be a direct result of how successfully we can keep up our determination and resolve."

Verrone said future picketing schedules "will be determined in consultation with the strike captains and will be designed to continue to have maximum effect on our employers and include both studio and location picketing."

Picketing and other strike activities also will continue in New York, where the WGA East has scheduled a meeting of strike captains for today.

On Tuesday, the WGAE has scheduled a rally for 10 a.m. at Sony Plaza. The guild has pinpointed its daily strike activities, shifting picketing and membership rallies from site to site throughout Manhattan.

"During the more than 25 years that I've been involved with this union, I have never seen such wholehearted, full-throated solidarity among our members, such devotion and dedication to one another," WGAE president Michael Winship said in a message e-mailed to members Saturday.

"On Tuesday, we were in the financial district, picketing and leafleting the moneyed men and women of Wall Street," Winship recounted. "Wednesday brought a huge crowd to the World of Disney store on Fifth Avenue, where we delivered a loud and pointed message to the House of Mouse. And Thursday, despite rain and chill, you showed up in force to demonstrate outside the corporate headquarters of Viacom, owners of Paramount, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and MTV."

The resumption of talks in the face of continued picketing represents a concession by AMPTP president Nick Counter, who had said he wouldn't return to bargaining under such circumstances. There was no immediate AMPTP explanation for the move.

The WGA and AMPTP started their contentious negotiations for a new film and TV contract July 16, holding 17 sessions before talks broke down and the strike began. Only the last session featured a press blackout.

In that session, the WGA took a demand for expanded DVD residuals off the table, and the AMPTP responded with some movement on new compensation in the area of new media. But the WGA said the response wasn't enough, took to the streets and said its DVD demands were being restored.

Elected officials and industry figures have attempted to provide back-channel assistance in bringing the parties back to the table.

Top talent agents have been in the center of some of those efforts, as the major agency companies have been on the bleeding edge of economic impact from the WGA strike. The Lourd-assisted breakthrough came Friday, at a meeting the agent hosted at his home attended by studio execs and WGA officials.

Other public figures helping to get the parties talking again include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both of whom met with guild leaders and telephoned studio execs.

Earlier on Friday, state and national politicians also got involved in WGA picketing. Those cameos included an appearance by Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, who carried a placard on the WGA picket line at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif.

The writers strike already has brought to a halt production of many TV series. It has sent late-night talk shows into reruns, and the Los Angeles-based The Ellen DeGeneres Show has had to cancel plans to shoot in New York after a showdown with WGAE about its continuing production.

Movie development also has been hampered, including an end for now to work on Sony's Angels & Demons, a prequel to The Da Vinci Code.

The curtailed productions might have provided motivation for studio execs to resume negotiations, though some have suggested that show cuts actually translate into cost savings on some lots. On the labor side, there appeared a chance that early broad support among TV showrunners might waiver if negotiations didn't get back on track soon.

"The truth about the showrunners is that we all agreed to stay out for the first week of the strike, but once it became clear that the Teamsters were not going to honor our picket lines, the unity to stay out dissolved," a top showrunner said Sunday.

With the parties headed back to the table, attention will focus chiefly on the quarrelsome topic of new-media compensation. The writers want greatly expanded pay for content re-used or originated over the Internet and mobile platforms, with the studios arguing that their fledgling new-media businesses can't support overly generous residuals.

Counter and WGAW exec director David Young each addressed their negotiating impasse in Opinion-page columns in Saturday's Los Angeles Times.

"So why did negotiations break down [and] why did the writers strike?" Young wrote. "In part because the conglomerates never offered a complete proposal, only bits and pieces of an offer, each one paired with a cutback. We, in turn, laid a complete proposal on the table, and we are still waiting for them to respond to it."

Counter stressed that the studios already have offered some new compensation for new-media content.

"Unfortunately, the theatrics and carefully designed photo opportunities of the last two weeks have obscured the fact that the [AMPTP] clearly supports writers having a fair share in opportunities presented by digital distribution," he wrote. "[Guild leaders] know that during the last bargaining session on Nov. 4, the producers proposed a residual rate for streaming shows and offered WGA members exclusivity in writing derivative programming made for new media—two proposals that were of utmost importance to WGA members—in order to make a deal that was fair to all."

Meanwhile, there has been much speculation that the AMPTP soon would turn its sights to early talks with the DGA on the guilds' next film and TV contract. Contracts with the DGA and SAG run through June 30, and the DGA appeared ready to start early negotiations imminently.

However, the resumption of talks with the WGA puts that possibility on ice for now.

Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.