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'Cautious Optimism': The Hollywood Term Meaning, 'Pssst...Everyone Pretend to Be Negotiating'

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Now that the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards are in the books and showbiz has given America a timely reminder of what a red carpet looks like (hint: it's still red), we can all go back to the business of keeping tabs on Hollywood's ongoing nosedive courtesy of the three-month-old Writers Guild of America strike -- or, as I like to euphemistically title it, "There Will Be Mud." We were again told last week that there was reason for imminent hope, with word of a certain cautious optimism sprouting anew. The WGA and studio negotiators were about to...well, at least they were thought to be moving past the, "You're a putz and so is your momma!" phase, anyway.

Not that anyone was officially talking, or even lip-synching. Not yet. It was still at the "informal discussion" stage, which precedes the "Maybe we'll soon start talking about something besides the Super Bowl" period, leading potentially to the "My boss is seriously considering sending your people an e-mail with regard to floating a call to plan something face-to-face" point. If we wish really hard, click our heels together twice and repeat "There's no place like Burbank..." over and over, the warring sides might just convene at the same secret location, Blackberry-ing each other across a polished slab. It's never easy convincing petulant juveniles with huge resentment issues to kiss and make up, or even to acknowledge one another's existence without simultaneously wishing them the tragic victim of a freak smallpox outbreak.

Of course, we have been down this "settlement could be soon at hand" road a few times before, and at some point you begin to feel like a jilted bride. Oh wait, we actually passed that point a couple of months ago. Duh. However, the chit-chat from those who, uh, know these things is that this time it's different because, well, trust us, it just is. The Directors Guild's already settled, the Oscars are a scant four weeks away, and so consequently it's inevitable that leverage will marry motivation in a double-ring ceremony. Say "I do," somebody!

Yet it is at times like this where we're reminded of the immortal words of that noted orator George W. Bush, who once was moved to observe, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me...can't get fooled again." The unfortunate truth is that there has been not a shred of outside evidence to indicate that Big Media has to date engaged in even two minutes of legitimate bargaining, much less in good faith. The WGA side has in the past week ditched its proposals to unionize writers who work on animated movies and reality TV shows. All that's left on the table is the only issue that's ever really mattered: having a slice -- any slice -- of Internet downloads and streaming and a piece of the wider burgeoning new media universe.

We might also note that for the past month or so, this thing hasn't resembled a walkout so much as a lockout. The producer side refused to return to the table while building a case via its high-powered PR firm that the writers were intransigent, money-grubbing fat cats who couldn't care less that their selfishness was putting all sorts of paycheck-to-paycheck industry types on the street. Then again, it was a bit difficult to discern where the scribes stood, given the other side's steadfast unwillingness to resume talks.

With the settlement rumors again flying fast, we are left to question the precise source of said scuttlebutt. Here is one undeniably pessimistic and hardcore but I believe at least semi-plausible theory:

The studios make a deal with the Directors Guild, whose residual guarantees don't come close to matching what the WGA is seeking. A producer rep circulates around the idea that things are looking up and informal talks have commenced. There is a resumption of in-person bargaining, followed quickly by an abrupt break-off and the usual angry recriminations along the lines of "So it seems those arrogant bastard writers think they're worth more than the directors!" and "We held out an olive branch and they ripped it to shreds!". The producers still have done nothing to move the talks forward -- or in truth even start them -- yet can seize the moral high ground. The WGA side will have been lured into a trap. The premise postulates that the studios have zero interest in ever coming to a reasoned agreement but are instead moving resolutely forward on a campaign of solidarity splintering and ultimate guild destruction.

Mind you, this conspiratorial scenario could be 100% (OK, 98%) off-base. An accord might conceivably come today and I'd be exposed as an alarmist whack job -- a development which I would applaud enthusiastically, if slightly sheepishly. We have, after all, seen an increasing trickle of independent production companies breaking ranks and signing their own pacts with the WGA, a list that now includes a couple of heavyweights like Lionsgate, Marvel and the Weinstein Co. Still, there remains unbending unity among the only guys who count: Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, et al.

But let's end here on a buoyant note, shall we? It's a gorgeous January day. The town is buzzing. The writers are picketing. The air is pregnant with possibility. And if you listen really hard, you can make out the glorious sound of thawing ice. On the other hand, that could also just be the moguls rubbing their hands together.

Ray Richmond blogs for The Hollywood Reporter at www.pastdeadline.com.

Read more about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.