Studios survive rush hour

But there's little upside after pre-strike prod'n push

Fearing a one-two punch of actors and writers strikes, Hollywood was in a production frenzy this time last year: As a form of strike insurance, the studios were filming just about anything anyone could pull together.

Now, the fruits of that massive push are showing up in theaters. And the question is whether either the studios or filmgoers benefited.

A few conclusions:

  • The production rush presented a dream opportunity to many filmmakers: a fast greenlight, no development hell and minimal studio interference. But the resulting films seem no better than pics made the traditional way — and are maybe worse.

  • The lensing glut definitely enriched some: Even B-list actors, writers and techies managed to sell their talent at a premium.

  • Studios have been stuck not only with a raft of so-so films they may need to dump in out-of-the-way corners of the schedule, but also building up interest rates and other unexpected expenses.

  • Even though no strikes occurred, production dried up at mid-year, leading to a de facto strike from which Hollywood is still recovering.

“We had a strike,” insists a lit agent for one prominent tenpercentery. “We had a strike. You have to realize it takes three months to ramp up a film, and months more to make it. Only in the last two weeks have we had decent scripts begin showing up on agents’ desks. So many projects were rushed forward that little was left in the tanks.”

A distorted production process might not be a big deal if the resulting films were artistic or commercial successes. But that hasn’t been the case.

Under a different production environment, could Universal’s “Dragonfly” have gotten aloft? Could DreamWorks’ “The Time Machine” have done better with more time? Would Warner’s “Queen of the Damned” have been a damned sight better with more attention?

All told, more than 200 films of all sorts and sizes were in some stage of production between late 2000 and April 2001, the arbitrary drop-dead start date for many projects.

Some had begun shooting after a normal development sked. But dozens of others faced deadlines that crimped every part of their creation.

“When you bunch things up, you’re not getting the best out of anybody,” Warners prexy of worldwide production Lorenzo di Bonaventura says. “There’s reduced attention to the filmmaking process.”

“Everyone made bad decisions,” acknowledges a top studio exec. “A few of the movies cost a little bit more than they would have; others could have used more script time.”

And more questions are raised by films that haven’t yet bowed.

U’s “The Scorpion King” faced a strike-caused “scrunched” production schedule. During post-production, producer-scribe Steve Sommers had to write additional action sequences to flesh out the film.

That fed Web rumors the pic was in trouble, which studio sources deny. Nonetheless, with an April 19 release just ahead, reshoots were still underway in January.

WB’s “Eight-Legged Freaks,” an effects-heavy horror pic, saw its shooting schedule slashed from 55 to 40 days last winter.

Recently, its debut moved from mid-September to July 12, opening opposite two heavyweights: Sam Mendes’ “The Road to Perdition” with Tom Hanks, and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”

On the other hand, several pics made during the frenzy turned out well. Sony/Revolution’s “Black Hawk Down,” WB’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” MGM’s “Legally Blonde,” Buena Vista’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” and Universal/DreamWorks’ “A Beautiful Mind” were successes with both crix and tix.

However, all of these films had strong filmmakers and major studio support and maybe weren’t technically “rushed.”

For some pix, then, the spring craziness didn’t hurt, and may have helped.

And the same could be said for some of the people making movies.

“Any actor who was perceived to have heat or was considered up-and-coming could demand an extra 25-50%,” says one studio’s top business affairs exec. “Anybody you were looking for in a lead role was definitely getting 10-20% more than they should have.”

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, Ben Affleck and Cate Blanchett were among the many stars with two, three, even four projects.

Even Sally Kirkland and Corbin Bernsen had back-to-back-to-back roles. And that affected talent prices, even for such little-known performers as Colin Farrell.

His price leapfrogged from $750,000 after “Tigerland” and “American Outlaws” to $2 million for “Hart’s War” to $5 million for “The Farm” — even though he’s still never had a hit film. (He also snagged a prized role opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.”)

MGM’s production prexy Alex Gartner insists the salary bump for “Hart’s War” had nothing to do with pre-strike pressures: “We wanted Colin. The people you really want are where the premiums are paid.”

But other exex Farrell’s salary run-up was one measuring stick for the whole market, as the rarified conditions of last spring inflated costs everywhere and complicated negotiations.

“When someone pays that much out of whack, it puts the reps in a bad place,” says one biz-affairs exec. “They have to go back and fight for the same numbers for their clients.”

The rising prices lifted everyone’s boat. Top rewrite scribes were snagging $250,000 a week for quick rewrites. Similarly, tech workers found salaries skyrocketing because of the demand for their talents.

“Below-the-line talent was where we really got gouged,” says Gartner. “People who were normally in demand weren’t available, because all the pictures wrapped at the same time.”

To get work done, studios sometimes had to rely on several effects houses for each pic, instead of the usual one.

“Time Machine” and MGM’s “Rollerball” each had seven, for instance, while “Eight-Legged Freaks,” “The Scorpion King” and Paramount’s “The Sum of All Fears” used two or three. By farming out the work, studios end up paying significantly more.

Nonetheless, many exex swear strike concerns had little impact on their products.

New Line had several films in the can when Toby Emmerich became production prexy in January, so his only last-minute add was “All About the Benjamins,” a package deal other studios were too busy to accommodate.

He counts himself lucky for deciding, narrowly, not to greenlight “Westward,” because the extra year allowed much-needed script work.

Fox studio prexy Jim Gianopulos also laid claim to a business-as-usual sentiment.

“We made the decision not to do anything differently in terms of production,” he says. “We didn’t change our standards for greenlighting movies and we did not speed up.”

Fox-based New Regency simultaneously cranked out three films last spring: “High Crimes” with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd; “Unfaithful” with Richard Gere; and “Life or Something Like It,” with Angelina Jolie.

But the spring’s glut led to the fall’s famine.

Even though last-minute deals averted the strikes, production dropped two-thirds in the Los Angeles area the second half of the year. It’s still not completely back from what was effectively a shadow strike.

“Post-strike, I found myself telling people ‘take it or leave it’ 100 times more than I did in my whole career before,” a biz-affairs exec said.

In the first half of the year, L.A.-area feature filming shot 37% above average; it then plummeted 54% below average the second half.

“The town is somewhat back now from that bad fall, but it’s certainly not all the way,” one tenpercenter says. “You still don’t see people out and about breakfast, lunch and dinner, doing deals.”

Special-effects and post houses were hit hard, their woes compounded by the post-Sept. 11 drop in commercial work.

F/X specialists and editors who had been snatching a few winks in their office between long shifts during the spring had, by fall, found themselves sleeping late in their own homes, unemployed.

And everyone else is only slowly finding their way back to work.

“It will be two or three years before it all smoothes out again,” says di Bonaventura. “It’s like a physics problem.”

(Jonathan Bing, Dana Harris and Dave McNary contributed to this report. )

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