Another negotiating session between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. today, with several news reports suggesting that a settlement could be announced by the end of the day. Speaking at an investors conference in New York, Viacom chief Sumner Redstone said that his mood about the negotiations had changed to “cautiously optimistic” from “cautiously pessimistic” a few weeks ago. However, negotiators for both sides formally maintained a strict news blackout. “It is critical at this stage in the negotiations that the discussions remain in the room rather than negotiated through the media,” WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden said Thursday. Barry Liden, a spokesman for the producers, said only, “I think both parties are interested in trying to reach a settlement as soon as possible.”


Defying Las Vegas oddsmakers, Tina Wesson won the $1-million top prize Thursday on Survivor: The Australian Outback. Favorite Colby Donaldson received the $100,000 “consolation prize.” Although a great show was made of the fact that the final ballots were placed under guard and flown to Los Angeles, where they were not opened until Thursday night’s broadcast, some TV writers were skeptical, noting that several Web sites, claiming that they had received inside information from a disgruntled network writer, had correctly posted the names of the winners of the last seven episodes, including the finale. Television critics appeared to agree that the final episode of the second Survivor series lacked the punch of last year’s Survivor finale, but that it was effective nonetheless. Jonathan Storm, the television critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer called the show “agonizingly prolonged, stunningly hokey, yet surprisingly emotional and dramatic.”


Having lost its top-rated Buffy the Vampire Slayer sitcom to UPN, which is paying $2.2 million for each episode next season, The WB is promoting the final three episodes as the “WB series finale.” Some analysts are suggesting that although technically correct, the promos are misleading. Bill Carroll, vice president of programming at Katz Television, told Friday’s New York Post that, while the core fans of the series are aware of the network switch, “the more casual viewer might get the wrong impression, although technically they’re saying the truth: it is the final three episodes of Buffy that will air on the WB.”


Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network has removed 12 cartoons from a Bugs Bunny Marathon set for next month because they include racial and ethnic stereotypes, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. The newspaper said that although the 12 cartoons were originally going to be accompanied by prominent disclaimers (“Cartoon Network does not endorse the use of racial slurs. These vintage cartoons are presented as representative of the time in which they were created and are presented for their historical value.”), executives of the network decided to yank them after receiving messages from executives of corporate sibling Warner Bros. expressing their displeasure. Warner’s, the newspaper said, “stopped short of a veto.”


The trial of Barry George for the murder of popular BBC anchor Jill Dando in April 1999 opened on Friday in London, with the chief prosecutor indicating in his opening remarks that George, a onetime BBC messenger, may have been holding a grudge against the public broadcasting corporation. (As reported in Friday’s London Evening Standard, George once told a woman at a bus stop that he hated the BBC because of the way it had treated his idol, the late Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen. Dando had once participated in a BBC skit spoofing Mercury, the newspaper said.) Prosecutor Orlando Pownall added, however, “Whether he harbored a hidden grudge against her [Dando] … is impossible to determine … [but] it is not for the Crown to prove motive. There are compelling categories of circumstantial evidence which, when taken together, prove that Barry George was the man who was responsible for killing Jill Dando.”


The Mummy Returns is likely to drive last week’s box-office winner Driven off the track and leave the rest of the competition far behind in the dust, most trade analysts agreed. The original 1999 film opened with $43.4 million, and analysts predicted that the sequel will at least do as well. But many critics were not persuaded that it’s worth the price of admission. As the New York Times‘ Elvis Mitchell observed, “This enterprise is to the movies what an average boy band is to pop; just because there’s an audience for it doesn’t mean it’s any good.” Kenneth Turan puts it this way: “If you’ve been looking for a film like The Mummy Returns, The Mummy Returns is the film you’ve been looking for.” Several critics commented that the sequel is not as entertaining as the original (they didn’t like the original much, either), but Jonathan Foreman in the New York Post adds that the movie “is still perfectly enjoyable swashbuckling, eye-catching entertainment.” Many critics note that the film is the first film of the summer (well, almost summer) aimed at teenage boys. But Philip Wuntch in the Dallas Morning News goes on to say, “its gleeful fun should appeal to all age brackets.” Bob Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution comments that, “like its predecessor, The Mummy Returns leaps and bounds, jokes and scares, roars and double-roars. And not for a single second does it ever feel real.” But Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times faults the film for attempting to pack too much action into its two-hour length — the very thing that is likely to draw the target audience. “Imagine yourself on a roller coaster for two hours,” he remarks. “After the first 10 minutes, the thrills subside.” (Apparently Ebert hasn’t been around teenagers at amusement parks who eagerly ride roller coasters for an entire day.) Across town, Mark Caro in the Chicago Tribune likens watching the movie to a different kind of experience. It is, he says, “like standing behind someone playing a pretty cool video game. You may feel some vicarious excitement, but eventually you’d rather experience your own thrills.”


Former child film star Macaulay Culkin made his Off-Broadway debut Thursday in Madame Melville drawing solid notices. (He had originally starred in the play in London.) “Macaulay Culkin turns out to be quite the actor,” writes Donald Lyons in Friday’s New York Post, commenting also that he “embodies with remarkable poetry” the character that he plays, who is at times 30 years old (or older) and at others 15. Culkin is 20. Ben Brantley in the New York times comments that Culkin‘s performance “isn’t all that accomplished by traditional standards. … Yet this actor, who ruled the Hollywood box office before he turned 12 with hits like Home Alone and its sequel, turns out to serve the purposes of Madame Melville very well indeed.”


The scandal over the Hollywood Reporter’s freeloading gossip columnist George Christy has spread to Canada, where Toronto Star columnist Sid Adilman reported today (Friday) that Christy accepts free airfare, hotel accommodations and expenses to attend the annual Toronto and Montreal film festivals. At the Toronto festival, Adilman said, Christy also hosts a luncheon for visiting celebrities and local “movers and shakers” at the Four Seasons Hotel. Adilman reports that Gabrielle Free (sic), the festival’s publicist, denied that it pays for his hotel, his expenses, or the celebrity lunch, although she acknowledged that it does pay for his airfare. The Reporter does not pay for the lunch, Adilman added. The Four Seasons Hotel declined to comment.


Director James Cameron says that the development of small, digital, high-definition cameras will release filmmakers from many of the constraints that film cameras have imposed on them in the past. “One of the great advantages of HD, which hasn’t really been thought about, is the size of equipment and its relation to the scene you’re shooting,” he said. As reported by the online edition of Britain’s Empire magazine, Cameron remarked that traditional film technology, in which the film reel has to be physically adjacent to the lens, is “an ancient system…There will be much more flexibility and fluidity of movement because the physical size of the camera is so small.”


The San Francisco International Film Festival wound up Thursday, reporting record attendance of 80,893, up 18 percent over last year. The festival awarded its $10,000 SKYY Prize (“to recognize a first-time feature filmmaker whose film exhibits unique artistic sensibility”) to Patrick Stettner’s The Business of Strangers starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles.