Studios, unions prep for rancorous spring

FOR HOLLYWOOD’S MAJOR PLAYERS, the post-Oscar week is akin to a forced visit to rehab. Oscar revelries each year reach new heights of excess, making withdrawal all the more difficult.

Especially this year, when the frenetic partying seemed vaguely suggestive of the last voyage of the Titanic, masking a sense of foreboding. The cause of this foreboding stems from the issues outlined on page 1 of this week’s Variety. Coming off more than a decade of prosperity and labor tranquillity, Hollywood suddenly faces the prospect of intense economic discord. The unions and guilds already are edging toward the bargaining table with a list of demands that the major companies have no interest in accommodating.

Press reports to the contrary, these are not “ego issues.” Strip away the rhetoric about creative rights, possessory credits and the like and you find bedrock issues of economic survival: Expanded global residuals, bigger cuts of the video and DVD pie, and a fighting stake in the new media.

To be sure, with writers and directors quarreling over credits and the Screen Actors Guild acting like escapees from a psychiatric ward in its dealings with talent agencies, the town’s artisans may appear divided, but everyone quickly falls into line like an elite military cadre on one issue: They want a bigger piece of the pie.

INDEED, GUILD LEADERS THINK it’s corporate management that will ultimately display disunity, not the workers. Gone are the days when Lew Wasserman would shepherd rival CEOs into a conference room and mandate the terms of engagement. Today’s multinational companies may be allies in certain sectors of the world, but they pursue sharply different agendas in the U.S.

Moreover, Hollywood’s work force is motivated by a Rodney Dangerfield mindset. Labor leaders feel they don’t get no respect, that the multinationals don’t understand the modus vivendi that has governed the industry for the past 70 years. Unlike the typical company town, Hollywood’s community of artists and artisans is accustomed to being coddled. They’re not just hirelings, but rather part of a bonded creative community. The higher skills demanded by the new digital economy further reinforces this sense of “specialness.”

The multinationals don’t see things quite that way. Hollywood, in their view, consists of owners and workers. Why should Rupert Murdoch be expected to view Hollywood’s work force as being fundamentally different from the newspaper workers in London whom he throttled some years ago?

SEVERAL RECENT ACTIONS in the industry have suggested a tougher stance toward labor. On its new $ 135 million movie, “Pearl Harbor,” Disney is demanding deferments from craft workers as well as vendors — a highly unusual formula for a big-budget movie. Unlike the case of low-budget niche films, the workers are not being offered profit participations to reward their deferrals. Indeed, other companies too are taking a tougher position across the board with their below-the-line troops.

Not that Hollywood’s majors were philanthropic toward their labor force in the past. The tough moguls of old always groused about their overpaid artisans, even while negotiating generous contracts. It was paradoxical that Warren Beatty , that self-styled “old-fashioned liberal,” chose to accept the Irving Thalberg Award Sunday night, since Thalberg was a notorious union-hater. He once led a fight against establishment of the Writers Guild, accusing scribes of behaving “like a bunch of plumbers.” He also spearheaded a vile dirty-tricks campaign against the gubernatorial candidacy of Upton Sinclair, a so-called Socialist whose policies by today’s standards would seem mainstream.

The old-time moguls, though crotchety, nonetheless presided over a remarkably harmonious show business economy — one in which workers benefited disproportionately relative to other industries, but in return displayed higher standards of loyalty. The big question: Will this tradition survive the next two years? Will Lew Wasserman’s live-and-let-live standard prevail?

The portents are not encouraging. The multinationals make no bones about their disappointment with Hollywood’s profit margins. They want to re-invent movies as a risk-averse business, even though old-timers protest movies per se never constituted a “business” to begin with.

Perhaps inevitably, these contrasting attitudes now find themselves on a collision course. The Oscar parties are over and there’s a nasty scent of reality in the spring air.

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