LOS ANGELES (AFP) — Hollywood's screen writers' union has announced an indefinite strike starting Monday, a move likely to see popular shows yanked off air in the US film and television industry's biggest crisis in decades.
The 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America will stage a walk-out from Monday morning unless a deal is struck with producers over demands on pay and profit-sharing, the union said after its leaders met Friday.
A federal mediator late Friday called for an 11th-hour negotiating session, expected to be held on Sunday, in a last-ditch effort to head off a strike, ABC News reported.
Writers are demanding a greater share of residual profits from television series sold on DVDs as well as improved pay schedules for programs shown on the Internet, cellular phones, and other new media outlets.
"Everybody knows what a DVD costs and a writer gets four to five cents for a DVD sale," screenwriter Bryce Zabel said Thursday. "We've asked for eight. And they've said that's outrageous."
Industry analysts are predicting a lengthy shutdown lasting several months, with one estimate of potential losses set at more than one billion dollars.
Entertainment industry bible Daily Variety greeted news of the expected shutdown on its front page Friday with the headline: "Apocalypse Now."
The report also speculated that a strike may trigger off a chain reaction amongst other industry unions.
The strike calls come after talks between the guild (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) broke down on Wednesday, hours before an existing agreement expired.
Producers rejected the guild's demands as unworkable and too expensive, setting the stage for the first major strike by Hollywood writers in nearly 20 years.
"We are very disappointed with ... the action they took," Nicholas Counter, president of the AMPTP, said of the unionists.
"Their press conference was full of falsehoods, misstatements and inaccuracies, and we'll respond at an appropriate time."
The effects of a strike will be felt most severely by television, with late-night chat shows hosted by David Letterman and Jay Leno -- which both lean heavily on teams of union writers -- expected to go off the air.
"They call it the toughest time for comedy writing since those three weeks back in the 1990s when Bill Clinton stopped dating. Remember that?" quipped Leno during his late Friday show broadcast on NBC.
Other nightly shows such as Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report" are also tipped to shut down, according to reports.
Another US television institution, comedy show "Saturday Night Live", would also be sent reeling.
"Boom -- our show just shuts down," Amy Poehler, a member of the cast, told Daily Variety this week. "It's just done. There is no backlog of scripts."
The immediate impact on major Hollywood studios is expected to be limited as several have already drawn up contingency plans, according to industry reports.
Most of the major studios are reported to have built up portfolios of five films, with scripts and plots strong enough to overcome the possible lack of a union writer on board to execute re-writes.
Actor Tom Cruise said at the US premiere of his political drama "Lions for Lambs" on Thursday that he hoped for a swift end to the dispute.
"I just want to get it all resolved so we can get on with what we all want to do, which is make movies," he told a KTLA television reporter.
Matthew Michael Carnahan, who wrote the screenplay for Cruise's film, admitted to mixed feelings about being told by his union to stop writing.
"Just from a very selfish perspective it's hard for me to be told that I can't do this thing that I really love," he said.
"I'll go with it, because nobody forced me to become a member of the guild. But it's hard."
A WGA strike in 1988 lasted 22 weeks and cost the industry an estimated 500 million dollars (345 million euros).
"In recent years, these (media) conglomerates have enjoyed tremendous financial success off the backs of literally tens of thousands of people, including members of the creative community," said Patric Verrone, WGA president for the western United States.
"One part of that community is the writers, whose work serves as the blueprint for television programs and motion pictures. And although the industry's pie is continually growing, our share continues to shrink."
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