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Shell-shocked showbiz

Fearful for the future, players start rebuilding process

Last week, all of showbiz seemed frozen on a split screen: There was a fierce desire to get back to work, but also an inability to focus on anything but the tragedies in New York and Washington.

On Sept. 11, the entertainment biz, like the rest of the world, was paralyzed as it watched the unfolding events: Two hijacked jets slammed into the World Trade Center, a third hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed near Pittsburgh. However, within a few days, studios were open and functioning, TV execs were mapping out the fall season and “The Producers” was again SRO on Broadway.

Even so, everyone was distracted by the loss of human lives and a sense of vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Compounding their unease was a question: What will happen next?

Certainly, that question is unsettling in human terms. But the uncertainty also affects business questions: Will ongoing news developments mean these revamped showbiz plans must soon be revised again?

On Sept. 11, the industry made a few immediate decisions.

Warner Bros.’ “Collateral Damage” and Touchstone’s “Big Trouble” delayed their bigscreen bows, due to content. The Latin Grammys were canceled and the Emmys were postponed. Film and TV producers began snipping away at images or lines of dialogue that might offend. All legit theater in New York closed for several days.

But TV became a metaphor for all of showbiz. As schedules were scrambled, execs wondered: Will people want escapism, or will anything that’s entertaining seem trivial?

The start of the TV season was pushed back a week, until Sept. 24. But if breaking news continues to disrupt viewing patterns, new shows may have a hard time finding and holding onto an audience.

It’s possible auds may flock to shows where the good guys triumph over evil, particularly if the nation heads to war. Equally possible is that viewers may be in no mood to watch fictionalized versions of what they’ve seen so vividly in round-the-clock news coverage.

“What could have been a hit a few weeks ago might not be now,” says NBC scheduling chief Mitch Metcalf. “The psychology of the nation has changed.”

And some film producers — on a crass if not practical note — are looking ahead at the impact that U.S. military retaliation could have on upcoming theatrical releases.

Fighting would necessitate blanket news coverage, nearly eliminating the possibility of buying the commercial airtime necessary to launch a major film.

“It’s impossible to open a big movie if you can’t buy commercial ads on television,” said one veteran producer.

TELEVISION

In the short term, TV will have to deal with the content of cloak-and-dagger shows like “The Agency,” “Alias,” “24” and “UC: Undercover.”

When they resume, latenight talkshow hosts may discover that jokes about current events — the staple of their monologues — are inappropriate.

Longer-term, the industry will feel a serious economic crunch.

Tens of millions in ad revenue have been lost, with more to come in the weeks ahead. In an already tight economy, nets probably will be forced to make further cutbacks to budgets and staff.

Creatively, network development execs think the terrorist attacks will have an immediate impact on the kinds of programs greenlit for the 2002-03 season.

A few pitches had been made around town about projects set in an airport: Net execs said they’re a little wary about doing anything regarding air travel at this point.

“There’s been a paradigm shift,” one insider says. “Viewers are going to be looking for different themes in their programs. The age of irony will be over. You’ll see more escapism, more warmth, more heroism, more patriotism.”

Even existing shows will likely feel the impact. Storylines once dismissed as implausible may not seem so ridiculous in a world where both towers of the World Trade Center can turn to rubble in the course of an hour.

“Every writer, every producer, every executive will be looking at the stories they tell through a different set of eyes,” says one net exec. “The world has changed, and that will affect how people tell stories.”

For those who produce and broadcast sitcoms and dramas for a living, last week’s attacks made the work they do for the small screen seem that much smaller.

This was supposed to be the week that TV rolled out its star-studded lineup of new fall series while honoring last season’s accomplishments at the Emmy Awards.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedies, some networks execs actually thought it might still be possible to stick with that plan.

Within 48 hours, most realized this was no time to be cranking up the hype machine. The Big Three nets postponed premiere week until at least Sept. 24. And the Emmy kudofest was rescheduled from Sept. 16 to Oct. 7.

“Right now it’s not about entertainment programming, it’s about news programming,” says Jeff Bader, exec VP of ABC Entertainment. “Looking ahead, this is a huge, huge story. News will need at least an hour a night for the foreseeable future. To try to premiere around that makes no sense.”

Some think viewers will quickly grow tired of news coverage and seek out distractions through TV. “Everything’s going to be back to normal this week,” one studio exec sunnily predicts.

A stronger core of insiders believes events will continue to overwhelm much of the first month of the TV season. And if the nation heads into an all-out war, all bets are off.

“When push comes to shove and the spin starts going out on the ratings, there’s going to be an asterisk by this season,” one top programmer says.

FILM

As the film biz slowly began to crank up, execs and agents sat before call sheets that had shrunk from 300-400 a day to 10 or 12. Staff meetings began and ended in record time.

“People have been quietly checking in with clients,” said one insider at a major percentery. “The mood is somber. People are expressing care and concern, but that’s it. It’s not even close to coming back to life yet.”

Agents also said any scripts or development projects with references to bombing, hijacking, terrorism or other sensitive subject matter were being shelved or placed firmly on the back burner.

Others pondered the fate of films already completed or in development. Skedded to start production in January is Columbia Pictures’ actioner “Tick Tock,” with Jennifer Lopez to star for director Steve Norrington.

“It’s about a guy who has lost his memory and bombs going off in shopping malls during the Christmas holidays,” says one agent. “There is no way in hell they are going to make that now.”

The impact of the terrorist attacks was immediately apparent in the security efforts on studio lots and at executive offices across Los Angeles.

Studios such as Universal and Disney have upped security efforts, with the Mouse House also heightening security at its Orlando and Anaheim theme parks.

The Sony and Fox lots had lines of cars waiting for entry, while the parking garage at Sony Pictures Plaza featured photocopied signs stating that only employees with ID would be granted access.

Most of the town’s talent agencies also have amped up their caution, requiring visitors to sign in before proceeding to reception desks or agents’ offices.

“I don’t know that anyone’s going to be going full swing, mentally, for some time,” said Geoffrey Ammer, prexy of Columbia’s marketing group, “but the mood is positive, too. You can’t not move forward at some point.”

BROADWAY

With Broadway shut down for three performances Sept. 11-12, grosses for those perfs repped an immediate loss of $3 million.

The first Broadway opening of the fall season, “Urinetown” moved its bow from Sept. 13 to Sept. 20. And the Roundabout Theater postponed indefinitely its Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical “Assassins,” which was to begin rehearsals this week for a Nov. 29 opening.

But the long-lasting effects of the tragedy have bigger implications for Broadway, for the theater and for New York in general.

“People could be afraid to come to New York City,” said Jujamcyn Theaters producing director Paul Libin. “I pray it is not affected, but realistically it is a potential, a powerful potential, even though the city is safer than ever before.”

Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld was more sanguine: “The immediate impact will be directly related to how quickly the city gets back to normal and gets that message out.”

Leading producers, theater owners, union leaders and other industry players held the first of a series of meetings last week to assess the state of the industry and formulate cooperative action in the wake of the attacks. The meetings will take place once a week for the indefinite future.

Broadway shows resumed performances on the evening of Sept. 13, despite hoax bomb threats peppering the Times Square area.

Pre- and post-curtain speeches and/or moments of silence were given at all shows, and many included appeals for donations to the Red Cross and choruses of “God Bless America.”

“Attendance wasn’t as gruesome as I thought,” said one producer of the first night back on the boards. However, general assessments had attendance down anywhere from a quarter to a third of a normal Thursday in September.

For the first time in its four years on Broadway, “The Lion King” did not sell out. Sales at the TKTS ticket booth in Times Square were down 50% from the comparable day last year.

Luckily, workers at the smaller TKTS booth that was located at the World Trade Center were unharmed.

Many Off Broadway theaters, located in the cordoned-off district below 14th Street, were unable to resume perfs Sept. 13 and were hoping to be back in business over the weekend.

THE STOCK MARKET

Almost certainly, the media’s corporate coffers will take a hit from days of broadcasting without commercials. Movie releases yanked from skeds won’t help investor sentiment, either.

Some Wall Streeters fear stocks could dip 10% or more when the New York exchanges reopen Sept. 17, mirroring losses on overseas bourses.

Media merger activity, too, is likely to slow to a crawl as buyers and sellers grapple with lower valuations.

One high-profile deal in the works is the proposed combination of Hughes Electronics’ DirecTV and News Corp. After all, a dip in Hughes stock before Sept. 10 and a rival bid by EchoStar had already complicated talks.

Also, legions of bankers, brokers and analysts who facilitate these deals, track the markets and churn out research are in disarray because of the collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and several surrounding buildings.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

There were no power lunches, no back-slapping, no deals struck in the nation’s capital last week.

When Hollywood’s lobbying shops opened here Sept. 11, all attention was focused on a busy fall. Congress was back in action after the summer recess, and there was a full slate of legislation affecting the media/entertainment biz.

By the end of that day, schedules were wiped clean. Few even ventured a guess about when life might return to the usual dealmaking and concerns about copyright protection, violent movies or media consolidation.

Tough around the edges, media/entertainment lobbyists were shaken by the heavy security net that enveloped Washington — helicopters whirring above, a strangely quiet Reagan National Airport, the fractured Pentagon, the heavily barricaded U.S. Capitol, the bomb scares, the traffic gridlock.

Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell tried to put on an everyday face, announcing the reg agency would go ahead and hold its regularly scheduled meeting on Sept. 13.

In a symbolic gesture, Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy-CEO Jack Valenti refused to leave his office in the hours following the assault.

“By God, I’m going to stay right here. This is so incomprehensible,” Valenti said. “But life has to go on. Otherwise, the terrorists win.”

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