Prospect of WGA strike has studios on edge

Even as the winter holidays loom, Hollywood’s facing 2007 with an unmistakably grim directive: Start stockpiling.

The town’s coming down with a fresh, infectious case of strike-itus.

Despite recent pronouncements by WGA West prexy Patric Verrone and exec director David Young that there’s no need to be concerned that negotiations won’t start until the summer, the prospect of a strike has lit a fire under producers and execs.

Dealing with a possible work stoppage that would start Nov. 1 is becoming a normal part of doing business.

“You’re seeing the development process speeding up,” one exec said. “Dates for delivery of scripts are going to get moved up, if they aren’t already.”

Studios are taking a long look at accelerating production schedules, much as they did in 2000 and 2001 in advance of widely anticipated writers and actors strikes that never materialized.

“No studio’s going to get caught short,” one exec asserted. “We are starting to book space in advance and analyzing the pipeline and schedule. The uncertainty adds in layers of complexity to what’s already a tough decision.”

The murky labor outlook — particularly with SAG’s contract expiring in June 2008 — means studios will likely cut back on the number of pics they’re planning to release in 2008 and 2009.

Young and Verrone have asserted that the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers was not willing to address key issues such as digital downloads at early negotiations. Young reiterated that stance in a statement issued Tuesday in response to reports about industry worries.

“When industry representatives are prepared to address the vital concerns of writers, we are confident that we can reach a deal,” Young said. “Our members must be fairly compensated for their work. Our upcoming negotiations will assure that they are.”

For his part, Verrone has insisted that avoiding early talks enhances the WGA’s bargaining position and is in line with the guild’s past practice. And he’s accused the producers org of fear-mongering.

“The AMPTP asserts that, by refusing to negotiate early, we will force our employers to make rash business decisions to prepare for an inevitable strike,” Verrone said in a recent message to members. “That simply flies in the face of the last 18 years of Writers Guild history. In the past five WGA (minimum basic agreement) negotiations, we have been able to reach agreement without a strike, even though, in most cases, we did not begin negotiations more than a few months before the contract expiration date.”

The AMPTP, which serves as the industry’s negotiating arm, has asserted that Young agreed to start talks in January but then reneged after being told by the WGA West board that negotiations couldn’t start until September. WGA reps have insisted subsequently that talks could start in July.

In the interim, execs predict stockpiling of scripts and a ramping up of production early next year to get projects finished by late fall, since getting rewrites will become highly problematic if the WGA walks out.

“Strategically, you can use the strike threat now to help move things along and acquire properties,” one producer noted. “But six months from now, we’ll be saying there’s not going to be a strike so that things will keep moving.”

Nerves are also jangled at the networks amid planning for the 2007-08 TV season.

“You don’t have any alternative but to start planning around a strike taking place,” one exec said. “It would be irresponsible to not be prepared.”

The May upfronts will be particularly revealing since networks will have to have hammered out the semblance of a schedule that can survive a prolonged writers strike.

The nets continue to play their cards close to the vest — “You never want to imply to advertisers that there’s going to be a strike,” said another exec — but look for some telltale signs that the networks are moving to cover their bases:

–They’ll be ordering fewer drama and comedy pilots and more reality.

–There won’t be the usual late-spring hiatus in production.

–Continuing shows will get renewed earlier, with more backup scripts ordered so production can continue past Halloween if the writers walk out.

–Shows on the bubble between renewal and cancellation will become more likely candidates for renewal because they represent a smaller gamble than betting on a new show.

–Talkshows, news and gameshows will be more likely to migrate to primetime.

–Producers will take a long, hard look at shooting non-union and outside the U.S.

The last WGA strike took place in 1988. The acrimonious work stoppage lasted five months, delaying the start of the fall TV season.

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