Striking writers reach deal with UA


Published: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 10:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2008 at 10:24 p.m.

LOS ANGELES - Striking Hollywood writers have reached a deal with Tom Cruise's production outfit United Artists Films to resume working while the strike continues against other studios.

The deal announced Monday was the first reached with big-screen producers by the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike since Nov. 5. Terms were not disclosed.

"United Artists has lived up to its name. UA and the writers guild came together and negotiated seriously. The end result is that we have a deal that will put people back to work," said Patric M. Verrone, president of the Writers Guild of America, West.

The guild said the agreement addresses key issues of writers, who walked off the job over their cut of potential profits from programming on the Internet and other new media.

The deal does not include MGM, the main parent company of United Artists.

In a statement, MGM said it "understands the desire of United Artists to resume its business activities but respectfully disagrees with its decision to sign an interim agreement."

United Artists is not a member of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents MGM, Sony, Disney and other major studios in negotiations with the guild. Contract talks with the writers broke off Dec. 7, with no new negotiations in sight.

The producers alliance downplayed the significance of the United Artists agreement.

"One-off deals do nothing to bring the WGA closer to a permanent solution for working writers. These interim agreements are sideshows and mean only that some writers will be employed at the same time other writers will be picketing," the alliance said in a statement. "Until the people in charge at WGA decide to focus on the main event rather than these sideshows, the economic harm being caused by the strike will continue."

The strike has idled production on many TV shows and forced the delay of a few major big-screen films. Carpenters, makeup artists, set decorators and other behind-the-scenes employees have been thrown out of work.

The United Artists deal could begin to drive a wedge between the producers alliance and independent production companies that want to get their writers back on the job, said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Other companies could follow United Artists' lead and reach side deals with the guild to continue production while the strike endures, then sign on for whatever terms the alliance eventually reaches with writers, Mitchell said.

"It's the same kind of problem as, let's say, OPEC. You have a group of people that has a common interest in having a common front, where they want to keep oil prices up," Mitchell said. "There's always somebody who says, 'You guys keep oil prices up, and I'll sell more than my quota. You do the heavy lifting, and I'll just reap the reward.'"

Kim Masters, an entertainment correspondent for National Public Radio, said that with major corporations controlling so much of entertainment production, the United Artists agreement was just a drop in the bucket.

"It's a nominal victory. It's a very tough environment for the guild to start peeling off major players," Masters said. "I've got to feel with the media concentration today, it's just very hard to split these companies up."

The United Artists deal follows an agreement with David Letterman's production company that allowed writers for his and Craig Ferguson's late-night shows to return to work. The shows went back on the air last week.

Jay Leno and other late-night hosts also went back to work. But without similar deals, those shows are airing without the help of writers.

Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner took over the venerable United Artists banner in 2006 after they severed long-term ties with Paramount, where their production company had been based.

Founded in silent-movie days by Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, United Artists had been largely mothballed in recent years.

The guild "agreement is important, unique and makes good business sense for United Artists," Wagner said. "In keeping with the philosophy of its original founders, artists who sought to create a studio in which artists and their creative visions could flourish, we are pleased to have reached an agreement with the WGA."

The first United Artists release under Cruise and Wagner's stewardship, the war-on-terror drama "Lions for Lambs," was a flop despite a top-name cast that included Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who also directed.

The next United Artists release, director Bryan Singer's World War II thriller "Valkyrie," also stars Cruise and is due out Oct. 3. Among other United Artists films in development is "Die a Little," a crime thriller starring Jessica Biel.

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