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Strike looms for TV, movie writers with Baltimore ties

The Baltimore Sun

His first screenwriting credit appeared on theater screens less than a month ago, and his first TV series as writer-producer, Unhitched, is set for its debut on Fox early next year.

This should be a high point in Kevin Barnett's career. But instead, the Baltimore County native is getting ready to stop writing and go on strike tonight at midnight PST.

While negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers continue today, if a deal isn't reached, writing for TV and movies will grind to a halt.

After months of contentious talks, writers and their employers were unable to reach agreement on a new contract to replace the one that expired Wednesday. The dispute hinges on payments for DVDs and for shows distributed on the Internet.

Barnett, whose first movie, The Heartbreak Kid, opened Oct. 5, agrees that DVD payments should be increased and that writers deserve compensation regardless of how work is seen by an audience. But he's not happy about the prospect of going on strike.

"It just seems incredibly unfair," said Barnett, who is visiting his family in Timonium this weekend. "We've been fighting for such a long time, and [the issues] have just gotten patched over so many times. It seems like this [strike] is the only way to do it, unfortunately."

Should the writers walk out, the first audiences to feel the effect will be those watching late-night television and other live talk shows. Shows such as CBS' Late Night with David Letterman and NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno could revert to reruns or go on hiatus.

In the last writers' strike, a five-month work stoppage in 1988, shows such as The Tonight Show stopped production for several months. Some talk shows did return before the strike was settled but with shorter monologues and longer interview segments.

Anticipating a strike, the networks sped up production on most prime-time shows, but those extra scripts are expected to run out by January or February. By then, TV viewers can expect more newsmagazine shows, game shows and other reality fare because those programs aren't covered by the WGA contract.

The effect on movies would take longer to show because films have a much longer turnaround time than television shows. Also, like the TV networks, studios have been hoarding scripts for months. Most of this summer's major releases, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, are well into production.

But a long strike could cut back on the number of movies available for the fall and beyond. Also, union members would be unavailable for rewrites on films in production.

Rafael Alvarez, a former Sun reporter who is now a writer-producer on the NBC series Life, said Friday that he fully expected a strike to happen.

"We are nowhere close to discussing what the guild considers the important issues," Alvarez said. "I can't imagine that just because we say we are going to go on strike Sunday at midnight that the studios are going to start to play ball."

While DVD residuals are a large part of the impasse, compensation for online viewing and program downloads is the primary sticking point. The producers acknowledge that online viewing is increasing and promise to study the issue, but they argue that it is too early to say how profitable it will be.

But the writers union counters that the Internet will be a major means of distribution in the future and wants to negotiate the issue now. Its leadership points out that the producers took the same stance with regard to DVD sales but never revisited the issue. Writers receive about 4 cents for every DVD sold, according to the union's Web site.

"That is the absolute, far and away most crucial issue," said Alvarez, who has volunteered to work as a contract captain during the strike, supervising a block of 10 to 12 union members. "They don't want to give us any of those shared profits when shows are [watched] on downloads or streaming."

Director Barry Levinson, a longtime member of the WGA, sounded pessimistic that a strike could be averted.

"Will there be some resolution? Of course," the Baltimore native said Friday. "But the networks can afford to go months and months and just regard writers as a nuisance to the corporation.

"What we need is for people to sit down and say, 'It's a situation that's difficult to understand; we're dealing with changing technology. ... Let's address it and find an equation by which writers, directors and actors can move down that road in some kind of equitable fashion.'"

Don't expect the issues to be resolved quickly, he warned.

"What I'm hearing," Levinson said, "is that there's a genuine arrogance on the part of the corporations, and we're about to enter into a really adversarial relationship."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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