TALK ABOUT THE BEST OF TIMES and the worst of times…Hollywood today is downright ecstatic over the prospect of labor peace. The writers seem compliant about their new pact and the actors too disarrayed to mobilize a strike threat. That’s the good news. Still, a lot of people are trying to figure out what to do with their lives given the fact that the studios and networks have spent most of their 2001 production budgets. All those writers who rushed to finish their scripts before the strike deadline are suffering postpartum depression. The D-boys and D-girls who were bypassed in the frenzy to get films into production are worried that their exclusion may become a way of life. “This was like a nightmare game of musical chairs,” said director Jonathan Mostow. “You kept worrying that the music would stop and you wouldn’t have a chair.” Mostow didn’t, getting buried instead in a blizzard of scripts. And consider the plight of the agents: Having booked their villas in Tuscany to serve as refuges during the strike, they now must face a drumbeat of phone calls from clients demanding, “Where do I find my next gig?” Network programmers, enamored of their “emergency” strike schedules steeped in “reality” shows, now must confront all those boring scripts yet again. In Hollywood, people like to have a plan. Sudden shifts in lifestyles are tough to accommodate when lives already are both too expensive and too complicated. Not everything is on hold, to be sure. Some movies that were long in limbo are now moving forward — even “Men in Black 2,” the spectacularly pricey sequel that many thought would never get made. DreamWorks, too, hopes to greenlight four films in the next two months, and Disney claims it plans to return to its original production blueprint. THE POST-PACT CONFUSION is epitomized by an analysis last week in the Los Angeles Times propounding a sort of conspiracy theory behind the settlement. It seems Jay Roth of the Directors Guild and Tom Short of IATSE masterminded the plot — a fact that seems to come as news to both. The debate among writers over the merits of their “package” has confused the actors, who like to wait for writers to write their lines. Was it really worth all this Sturm and Drang to come away with economic gains valued at a puny $41 million? It’s gratifying to force Rupert Murdoch to ‘fess up to more realistic residuals, but wasn’t it also possible to put at least a symbolic dent in the video formula, as several major stars and filmmakers individually have managed to do? And then there’s the ever perplexing issue of creative rights. I’m glad writers may get their names on the invitation lists to premieres, but take my word for it — this is a dubious honor. Premieres always start late while everyone stands around watching the stars smile for the paparazzi. At more and more of the post-preem parties, the so-called celebrities are cordoned off in a separate room from the civilians. If anything, these events will only heighten the writers’ sense of indignity. Mindful of the widespread resentment of the “film by” credit, some actors are downright puzzled as to why the Writers Guild rejected what would seem a tempting offer by the directors. It’s true that some neophyte filmmakers are grabbing the possessory credit, said the DGA, so why not bar first-time directors from getting that credit? The writers greeted this proposal with a “how dare you!” apparently wanting a more sweeping commitment. Good luck. It’s not that directors are contemptuous of the writing process, it’s just that, polite talk aside, they are contemptuous of writers. And that, indeed, is what lends a certain tension to this moment in time. A lot of people will continue to make a lot of money. In doing so, they also will have to accept basic shifts in the balance of power. Writers have made extraordinary gains in recent years in terms of compensation, but it’s the directors who still exercise hegemony over the filmmaking process, and there’s no reason to believe that this will change. ON A BROADER SCALE, all the guilds and unions now confront an entirely new power bloc with which they must negotiate — a bloc consisting not of the traditional networks and studios, but of powerful multinational corporations that want to reinvent the basic economics of Hollywood along more traditional lines. That means companies get fatter profit margins while the artists and artisans who serve them get a smaller piece of the pie. That’s why Hollywood is missing the basic message: These are the best of times. The worst may still lie ahead.
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