General News

Hollywood braces for strikes

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Dec 31, 1899 | 7:00pm EST

D-Day is quickly approaching.

The Writers Guild of America's contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers will expire Tuesday. The Screen Actors Guild contract will expire June 30.

Consequently, an entire industry is bracing itself for the worst: a total shutdown of the entertainment machine.

The studios and production companies have already gone into a kind of shutdown mode - a "de facto" strike, as it's called - having almost completed most of their productions. The only projects now being shot are films that went into production earlier in the year. The summer production work will be very slim even if the strikes are avoided.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan is doing everything in his power to help avert the strikes. But one thing remains clear: a writer/actor walkout would certainly affect what the world will watch in theaters and on TV in the next few years.

A brief recap

About 11,000 movie and TV scriptwriters who make up the WGA have talked about a strike since the beginning of the year. Their issues range from creative respectability to more control over their work to, of course, more money. The two sides are some $100 million apart in a dispute that centers on the residual payments writers earn as movies and TV programs enter such secondary markets as video, overseas distribution and reruns.

WGA and AMPTP have adhered to a news blackout since resuming negotiations April 17, following a two-week hiatus and the collapse of an earlier six-week round of talks. The talks continued through the weekend. Even though union leaders have not confirmed the willingness of either side to negotiate past the contract expiration, many believe the deadline will be extended on a day-to-day basis if progress is made.

WGA has its work cut out because globally vertical integrated corporations run the industry, one writer said.

"If the WGA thinks that they can bring AOL/Time Warner to its knees, they aren't being very realistic," Stephen Berger said.

If a settlement with writers is made on schedule, chances are greater that an agreement will be made with SAG when its labor pact runs out July 1. Talks between the actors and producers are tentatively set to begin May 10.

SAG is reportedly not as unified as WGA. There have been many reports of bitter infighting within SAG headquarters, with a movement from some members to oust union president William Daniels. Daniels' aggressive stand during last year's commercial strikes put a bad taste in many members mouths, and they are not as willing to withstand an bigger walkout come this June.

Mayor Riordan's plea

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has taken an extremely vocal and proactive stance in trying to stop the potential strikes. He has met with several factions and local businesses. He commissioned the Milken Institute to conduct a study on the economic impact an industry-wide strike would have on the Los Angeles economy. In the worst-case scenario, in which the actor and writer strikes would last more than five months, the approximate loss of revenue could extend to $6.9 billion, with a total loss of about 81,900 jobs.

According to Reuters, Riordan has even suggested that the negotiators might benefit from the help of an outside mediator, such as former Sen. George Mitchell, who assisted in brokering a peace deal in Northern Ireland.

Riordan has insisted that he is neutral on the contract disputes, appealing rather to the common good for the city.

"I believe the pressure is equally on the studios and union leaders," he told Variety. "I am totally neutral on this. I would be very upset if either side took advantage of the leverage they have."

Riordan continues to meet with local businesses to discuss how the strike would affect them. He is pushing it to the last minute. He will meet Monday with a group of Los Angeles business leaders to make a final plea for writers and studios to find a compromise resolution and avoid a work stoppage.

De facto strike

The main difference between these potential strikes compared with the devastating 22-week WGA strike in 1988, as far as TV is concerned, is that the studios and networks have stockpiled original material and reality programming. The most devastating effect the 1988 strike had was in television. This time around, it is a whole new ballgame. Networks are well prepared with an arsenal on reality based series and game shows.

But a problem still remains even if the strikes were to be avoided: the studios have already stopped production. It will still take a few months to jumpstart production even without the strikes.

Studios rushed to get as much production done as they could in the past few months. MGM recently said it has 18 finished films in hand in preparation. But now things are winding down.

"We've been unbelievably busy [in the last few months], but it's kind of like busy to cut your own throat," Dan Schultz, the vice president of 20th Century Props, told Reuters. "There's going to be a tremendous slowdown in May."

Those who work day to day in movies and television, from the casting directors to costume shops to caterers, are feeling the effects in a major way. Heidi Levitt, the casting director for such films as The Joy Luck Club and Nurse Betty, told Reuters that she feels as if she is in "suspended animation." Jeffrey Olan of Rainbow Casting said that he's "just sitting here looking at the telephone."

Tom Morales, president of Tomkats, a nationwide catering firm, told The Associated Press: "We feel like we're squirrels gathering nuts for the winter."

His company has prepared and planned for a shutdown.

"We made strategic decisions in terms of purchasing, refinancing, paying down debt so our monthly expenses are lower," he said. "If we have to go to a skeleton crew to stay in business, we're prepared for that."

Electricians and sound technicians are concerned that they will be out of work until the fall.

"All the work that probably would have gone through the summer happened in a couple of months," Brandy Whitehead, office manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 40, told AP.

Some Hollywood technicians may look toward the industry's underbelly - pornography - for work. Jimmy Flynt II, director of marketing and public relations for Hustler, nephew to the infamous Larry Flynt, has fielded at least three dozen calls in recent months from film editors to B-movie actors and actresses looking for nonsexual roles.

"People of very high caliber are interested in finding work," Flynt told AP.

"The List"

Several insiders believe the studios may want to have a strike just to clean house.

No one wants to talk about it, but every studio has a list featuring a pecking order of dismissals. According to a report in Variety, one studio says all producers, directors and writers under contract are force majeured - the legal shutdown of contracts - with no hesitations on day one of a strike. The next group to go would be junior execs and also secretaries, assistants, etc. A studio could cut costs by suspending or ending sweetheart deals with certain producers and writers, but not all the studios are on the same page. Some are waiting to see whether the looming strikes will be averted.

Some big productions already have been put on hold, including The Matrix 2 and Terminator 3. Basic Instinct 2's casting problems caused its delay, since potential costars to Sharon Stone's ice pick-wielding queen moved onto other projects because of her hesitance in final approval. Danish director Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark) put his next film, Dogville, on hold because of star Nicole Kidman's schedule to fit in a film before the strikes.

With the amount of work that has been stockpiled by the studios, the independent filmmaking world also may be hurt. If the strikes don't happen, there will be a glut of big studio productions, leaving little room for independent films.

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