With the worst Hollywood labor crisis in 20 years headed for its third week, striking screenwriters and major studios have agreed to renew contract talks, offering the first glimmer of hope their deadlock can be broken.
The surprise announcement the two sides would return to the bargaining table on Nov. 26 came late Friday as TV production shutdowns mounted and the strike claimed its first casualty among the major film studios — postponement of "The Da Vinci Code" sequel starring Tom Hanks.
The parties have not met face to face since last-ditch talks presided over by a federal mediator broke off and the strike began Nov. 5 amid a flurry of finger-pointing, posturing and angry rhetoric on both sides.
The negotiations, which began in July, foundered mostly on differences over the writers' demands for a greater share of revenues from the Internet, widely seen as the future distribution pipeline of choice for filmed entertainment.
Although the parties had come under growing pressure to restart their talks, including meetings and phone conversations with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, there was no discernible sign of movement until Friday's announcement.
It came in a terse joint statement issued by the Writers Guild of America and the industry's bargaining arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
"Leaders from the WGA and the AMPTP have mutually agreed to resume formal negotiations on November 26. No other details or press statements will be issued," the statement said.
More picketingThe Writers Guild said its 12,000 members would remain on strike for the time being, with picketing to resume next week with a major rally and march down Hollywood Boulevard planned for Tuesday.
In an online message to union members, WGA West President Patric Verrone hailed the breakthrough as a result of the union's resolve.
"This announcement is a direct result of your efforts," he wrote. "For 12 days I have repeated that a powerful strike means a short strike."
He added the guild would suspend picketing next Wednesday through Sunday, the eve of the next bargaining session, due to the Thanksgiving holiday.
The writers' old three-year contract with the major film and TV studios expired Nov. 1, and the WGA launched its strike four days later, even as the two sides were still negotiating. When studio executives asked the writers to put their work stoppage on hold, and union leaders refused, the producers left the bargaining table.
The strike immediately threw the television industry into disarray, as several late-night talk shows, including those hosted by Jay Leno and David Letterman, were forced into reruns. Production also ground to a halt on numerous prime-time comedies and dramas, idling hundreds of non-writing workers.
But the studios' film release schedule had remained unscathed until Sony Corp's Columbia Pictures announced Friday it was delaying production on the "Da Vinci Code" prequel "Angels & Demons," to be directed by Ron Howard. The studio said the script, by Oscar-winning screenwriter and WGA member Akiva Goldman, needed further work.
The film, originally set to open during the 2008 holiday season, is now slated for a May 2009 release, Columbia said.
Production on most TV shows was expected to cease by the end of this month as work was completed on the last advance scripts stockpiled by the studios in anticipation of a prolonged strike.
The last major Hollywood strike, a 1988 walkout by the WGA, lasted 22 weeks, delayed the start of that year's fall television season and cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million. Experts said a strike of similar duration this time would result in losses topping $1 billion.