The biz starts to stockpile

Not that there was any doubt, but the latest statistics for filming in L.A. confirm what everybody already knows: The studios and networks have revved up production, stockpiling projects as strike fever engulfs Los Angeles.

Amid fears of a work stoppage by the Hollywood guilds next year, studios have been greenlighting more active projects than they were at the same time last year. The goal is to start production no later than March 1, so shooting can be completed by next July, when actors and directors could launch strikes.

Network brass also have been quietly planning for alternative lineups heavy on reality, sports and gameshows — i.e., fare that doesn’t require guild talent.

Although the WGA’s contract expires on Oct. 31, few expect a deal to emerge by then. In that case, it’s likely the WGA will tell members to keep working under terms of the expired pact in hopes that the guild can achieve an improved deal after the DGA and SAG negotiate.

A report from the Film L.A. permitting agency, scheduled to be released today shows that off-lot feature filming in the Los Angeles region surged 29%, and TV work 19%, in the second quarter to 2,514 and 5,387 days, respectively.

It was the busiest spring quarter for off-lot feature activity since 2001, when a pre-strike production frenzy saw a total of 3,613 days.

“The second-quarter surge is consistent with activity we have tracked in other periods preceding contract negotiations,” said Film L.A. president Steve MacDonald. “We may be seeing a repeat of what happened in 2001, when production rose prior to labor negotiations, and then dropped significantly after the negotiations concluded.”

In 2001, local production of features rose 45% and 38%, respectively, in the two quarters prior to the SAG contract expiration, then plunged by 37%, 54% and 58% in the next three quarters.

The 2007 production increases occurred during an acrimonious run-up to negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. Two days of negotiations in mid-July yielded mostly recriminations and finger-pointing, with no new talks set.

Recently greenlit movies include Warner Independent’s “The Rum Diary,” with Johnny Depp; New Line’s “Four Christmases,” with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn; Fox’s “Wolverine,” with Hugh Jackman; Yari Group’s “Nothing but the Truth,” with Rod Lurie directing; DreamWorks’ “Eagle Eye,” with Shia LaBeouf; and Warner’s “Yes Man,” with Jim Carrey.

A strike hanging over next year will wreak havoc with pilots for the 2008-09 TV season. Net and studio execs will be loath to have a slew of pilots set to begin production in February-March without certainty of where things will go.

The Writers Guild has been unimpressed by the stockpiling, asserting that it’s a scare tactic with no impact on negotiations.

“Stockpiling is an unecessary disruption by studios of the production economy,” said WGA West assistant exec director Charles Slocum. “It’s never altered the course of negotiations. We remain ready to seek a reasonable deal at the bargaining table.”

Slocum also said he was somewhat skeptical of the usefulness of the Film L.A. figures, asserting that the numbers represent only about a third of the total production in the region.

MacDonald admits that the rise in film production is a surprise, since it had declined in the four previous quarters — partly due to producers opting for extensive incentives offered by as many as 30 states outside California.

Film production on public property in Los Angeles still remains well below the levels of a decade ago. Activity for the entire year hit a record of 13,980 days in 1996, then declined for seven consecutive years before rising 19% in 2004 and 9% in 2005 and then falling 7% last year.

For TV work, the second quarter represented the third-busiest on record, reflecting an ongoing surge in TV production in Hollywood over the past decade thanks to reality TV and the growth of cable.

Reality TV continued to dominate with a 12% gain to 2,485 days, while TV drama activity rose 5% to 1,188. Sitcoms posted the biggest gain, jumping 71% to 507 days; pilots declined 21% to 306 days.

Film L.A. said 82 pilots had been produced in Los Angeles during the February-May pilot season, up one from the 2006 season. Local production share rose to 82% from 67.5% as the number of pilots filmed outside Los Angeles slid to 18 from 39.

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