Draconian strike plans feed town's neuroses

Remember the Y2K virus that was going to send the world reeling?

It never happened. Instead, Hollywood has been struck by the FOS virus — Fear of Strike — and everybody’s going nuts.

As awards season winds down with the March 25 Oscar handouts, showbiz should be in a self-congratulatory mood. Instead, the panic level among writers, actors, directors and below-the-line workers has increased due to executives’ calm declarations that they can easily withstand a long strike.

And the FOS is spreading most quickly throughout the TV world.

Oddly, primetime is no longer the chief area of concern.

Instead, the focus is on fringe periods such as late-night, where talk mavens Jay Leno and David Letterman are weighing their decisions.

“We’re planning for shows as if there will be no strike. As events unfold, we’ll decide more when we know more,” says “Late Show with David Letterman” exec producer Maria Pope.

Leno says “The Tonight Show’s” on-air presence during a strike depends a lot on the position of the WGA leadership.

“I’m a union member, and I’ll do whatever my union wants me to do,” the host tells Variety, noting that he’s always respected picket lines in the past.

Neither the Leno nor Letterman camp will discuss it publicly, but some latenight sources say that in the event of a prolonged strike, both shows could seek waivers that would give the union blessing to go back on the air.

Most TV execs seem totally prepared for a strike, which sends a chill through many in the creative community.

Whether or not there is a strike, the networks are sticking with Plan B: downplaying scripted comedies and dramas, and going full throttle on reality-TV and news programs. All six network entertainment honchos say they have enough programming to last well into the first quarter of 2002.

Most of those projects are unscripted reality series featuring non-pro casts. But many current series, such as Fox’s “That ’70s Show,” have agreed to produce additional episodes for fall.

And some producers with fall series commitments, such as Dick Wolf and his third “Law & Order” installment for NBC (this time subtitled “Criminal Intent”), have begun production in order to wrap before a strike.

ABC execs are particularly ready for a strike: The “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” network only programs about seven hours of original, scripted series a week. Most of its sked is already strike-proof, including “Millionaire,” Monday Night Football, movies, newsmags and other reality skeins, including the upcoming “The Runner.”

“We will not have to rely on any repeats,” says ABC Entertainment Television co-chair Stu Bloomberg. “Strike or no strike, we’re in great shape.”

News Corp.’s Fox TV division has also stockpiled programming in the event of a strike, pushing back some projects to fall, ordering additional segs of current series and ordering some new series early enough to finish production by summer.

Net execs say Fox has in its arsenal 83 half hours of original comedies and 26 hours of original drama ready to go in the event of the strike.

Even on the cable side, execs seem OK with Plan B. For example, an HBO spokeswoman says that, thanks to production scheduling, the only HBO original series likely to be hit by a strike is “Sex and the City.”

Otherwise, the pay-cabler will count on its library of theatrical movies, plus documentaries, occasional concerts and weekly boxing matches, which will all continue as usual during a strike.

HBO has no one-shot comedy specials in the offing that would have to be delayed in the event of a strike.

And basic-cabler Comedy Central, which has a lot of original programming, is not sweating any strike delays. “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “Win Ben Stein’s Money” are unaffected; they’re not WGA or SAG shows.

And other shows (“South Park,” “The Man Show” “Battlebots,” “Premium Blend,” and the new “Jiminy Glick” and “Tender Trap”) are unaffected, due to production skeds.

In daytime, there’s good news for soap opera fans. Story lines are developed far in advance, so even if the scribes go on strike, producers, actors and execs will pitch in to create dialogue. And sudser stars are contracted with AFTRA, so they would be unaffected by a strike by SAG.

All this complacency is unsettling to many in Hollywood. Perhaps even more upsetting is the idea that some people may look forward to a strike.

“A strike would be a good way for studios to get rid of unproductive vanity deals with actors, directors and producers,” notes a tenpercenter.

As many as 50% of existing term deals could be in jeopardy: “The ballpark figure is usually about half of your deals work,” an attorney says.

One prominent TV production exec sighs, “I hope there’s a strike; I can use a vacation.”

All sides seem ready for a strike — the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & TV Producers — though it’s not clear how much is genuine strike readiness and how much is saber-rattling.

But last week, studio toppers sent out a clear message: There’ll be no “meeting in the middle” with the Writers Guild.

Producers speak out

At a March 22 press briefing at ABC headquarters in Burbank, Disney’s Robert Iger, DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Warner’s Barry Meyer said the extrapolated cost of WGA’s demands would bankrupt them.

“We can’t put ourselves out of business,” Katzenberg declared during the 90-minute briefing.

Management said the writers’ proposal would cost them a “catastrophic” $1.6 billion over three years — is pread over all entertainment union contracts. The WGA put the figure at $450 million.

Speculation that the two sides will meet halfway was labeled as “ill-informed” by Katzenberg, who insisted the studios and nets have no intention of splitting the gap in proposals to reach a deal. “We could not meet in the middle and have an acceptable deal,” Katzenberg said, echoing comments made two weeks ago by WGAW prez John Wells and exec director John McLean.

The CEOs asserted that the writers — not the companies — must do most of the backtracking from their current offer for a deal to be reached.

“There’s no such thing as ancillary revenues any more; it’s all primary revenue,” Meyer added. “We need many more markets and exposures to recover costs.”

The comments will deepen fears of back-to-back strikes by the WGA after its May 2 contract expiration and by the Screen Actors Guild when its contract ends June 30.

Charles Slocum, WGA West’s director of strategic planning, says the studio CEOs are overplaying the impact on showbiz from a possible recession.

“The general economy’s performance does not reflect the health of the entertainment industry,” he adds, noting that video revenues soared 20% last year.

While TV’s panic level seems to be on the rise, the film side is dealing with its own headaches.

Actors are scrambling to quickly pile on projects, with even Oscar-winners expressing fear that they may never work again. Studio execs are twitching, because agents and managers have stopped calling.

Pre-strike slates are full and locked in; there’s little wiggle room at this point. So, with nothing else to do, film production execs are rifling through their old files, looking for projects for 2002, after the strikes have ended.

And studios are fretting about a contingency plan if the Screen Actors Guild bars stars from promoting their summer films.

It’s worrying to publicists who are handling pics set for release in July and beyond, particularly on the broadcast side. “We’ve been trying to set junkets and taping interviews before the strike but there’s only so much you can do at this point,” one said.

Scrambling dates

Another said a SAG ban on promo work might cause shifts in release dates away from the July-September zone, now viewed as the most likely strike period.

That would be a huge headache, since summer months account for 45% of major studios’ annual boxoffice.

Pressure could mount

SAG’s goal in crafting such a broad strike order would be to build pressure on studios to settle quickly.

However, barring promo activity could generate a backlash from high-profile members, particularly those with deals tied to box office performance. Additionally, studios would likely argue that promo work cannot be covered by a strike order because performers have already been paid.

“It’s somewhat ambiguous whether promo work really qualifies as struck material,” one exec said. Studios might file an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, but fast action from that agency would be a longshot.

SAG has been mum on whether it will allow members to continue doing promo and publicity for features if the union goes on strike.

The issue could be decided at SAG’s upcoming national plenary meetings in Los Angeles at the end of this week. Spokesman Greg Krizman said the guild has made no decision, but added that the confab may give leaders the opportunity to spell out a specific policy.

Waivers sought

On the independent front, nearly 200 producers have sought waivers to continue production if SAG goes on strike.

SAG’s national board is expected to issue a policy decision on the waiver question at its March 31 meeting in Los Angeles.

SAG has typically “floated” interim deals during previous strikes, with producers agreeing either to terms of the union’s final offer at the bargaining table or to terms of the final settlement between SAG and the AMPTP. During last year’s strike against advertisers, SAG signed more than 2,000 such deals.

Should SAG grant film-TV waivers, it could open the door for top-line talent to work on projects during the strike with independents who are not signatory to the AMPTP agreement.

Undecided

The WGA has also not yet decided if it will issue interim deals.

When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in 1988, NBC’s “Tonight Show” and “Late Night with David Letterman” aired reruns for two months. Then, “Tonight” host Johnny Carson returned to work and two months later, Letterman followed.

Technically, neither violated his WGA contracts since both were able to write their own monologues under a separate pact with AFTRA.

It’s still unclear whether Carson successor Leno and Letterman, now at CBS, will exercise the AFTRA exemption in the case of a strike.

But there is no consensus if there will be a strike.

Although support within the WGA has been strong, some believe that the bearish stock market and slowing national economy may be cooling the militancy of its members.

“I believe the producers definitely see the recession as all the more reason to grant only nominal gains to writers,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. “It’s less likely now that writers are going to be willing to make a stand, compared to a year ago.”

One agent concurred, saying, “No one is willing to lose their house over a strike.”

(Josef Adalian, Paula Bernstein, John Dempsey and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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