Strike jitters fuel studios' race to land stars

Hollywood’s traditional summer break is giving way to a summer scramble.

With threats of a strike looming, film studios are jockeying for top-tier talent, writers are racing to finish and polish scripts, and agents are trying to jam their actor clients into as many projects as they can.

The result is a frantic deal-making dynamic and a compressed development process, with many in Hollywood working weekends in an effort to solidify the 2009 slate in a span of six to eight weeks.

Actors like Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon are all pondering an array of projects, in some cases considering two or even three movies in a short timeframe, on the fear that there will be an extended work stoppage.

“It’s like a game of musical chairs, where you better make sure your client has a seat when the music stops,” says one agent. “By Oct. 31, all of the pre-strike movies will have their casts and directors, because of the required prep time. There might be some rewrite work and the odd comedy that can be slotted in and shot quickly. But that’ll be it for a long time.”

March 1 is viewed as the date any project has to start production if it has a chance to be completed by late spring, in advance of the Screen Actors Guild contract expiring June 30.

Each studio has given agencies a list of priority film projects. Commitments from a handful of bankable stars and directors are sure to yield greenlights. But things may get acrimonious when studios, in their zeal to make the movies, aren’t able to secure such talent and have to go to second-tier stars, with their agents seizing on the moment to demand bigger paydays.

One of the most targeted stars is Johnny Depp, with many studios watching to see if he becomes available. Depp has an opening to make a pic, and wants to star in Warner Bros.’ adaptation of the novel “Shantaram,” but the studio and director Mira Nair have yet to come to terms on a script, locations and a budget. If the project falls apart — as it did last year under Peter Weir — there are plenty of other studios waiting in the wings for Depp’s services.

The same waiting game is going on with “State of Play,” the Kevin Macdonald-directed adaptation of the British miniseries Pitt wants to do after he finishes the Coen brothers film “Burn After Reading.” Pitt hasn’t committed, though, as Universal is waiting on a rewrite by Tony Gilroy. Pitt also is being tempted by such projects as the Warner Bros. drama “The Town,” which has Adrian Lyne circling.

Damon may get in as many as three projects by next spring. Paramount is trying to line him up for a fall shoot of “The Fighter,” a Darren Aronofsky-directed drama, which also will star Wahlberg. Then, Damon is considering the Paul Greengrass Iraq drama “The Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” only if it can be completed by April 14. That’s because he’s promised Steven Soderbergh he’ll be available to start “The Informant” April 15.

Carrey recently committed to the Warner Bros. comedy “Yes Man” and the Robert Zemeckis-directed “A Christmas Carol” at Disney, and is looking for a third film to start before March. Notoriously picky Cameron Diaz has also set three projects, the Fox comedy “What Happens in Vegas … ,” Media Rights Capital’s horror film “The Box,” and the Nick Cassavetes-directed drama “My Sister’s Keeper” at New Line.

Despite the rush to make the deadline, execs are haunted by memories of 2001, when the lead-up to contract talks ended up with studios stockpiling product that, in many cases, turned out to be mediocre (or worse). Some films were miscast (the Chris Rock-Anthony Hopkins drama “Bad Company”) or rushed into production with half-baked plots (the Eddie Murphy-Robert De Niro starrer “Showtime”).

That history has only added to the anxieties. The time factor has put a weird pressure on producers and studio execs, who know that if a star agrees to their project, it’s a go; however, due to the possibility of a strike or even a work slowdown, a rejection means the work could be postponed indefinitely. Each major star who commits to a project dims the hopes of many producers anxious to lock down a deal.

“When Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon signed to do ‘Four Christmases,’ we crossed them both off our lists,” says an exec. “Vince was the real killer. Some actors will do as many as three films before next summer, but Vince has other movies to promote in the fall and the spring, and we don’t think he’ll take another film.”

George Clooney, currently in post on his film “Leatherheads,” is then booked for “Burn After Reading” and “White Jazz” but could possibly fit in another project. Tom Hanks is already set for “Angels & Demons” (the “Da Vinci Code” sequel for Sony), but there’s a chance he too will have an opening.

There’s also speculation as to what Tom Cruise will do once he finishes “Valkyrie.” Among the possibilities are “Men,” the Warner Bros. comedy that has Todd Phillips directing; and the Terry George-directed “Edwin A. Salt” at Sony. Some are hoping he will do both.

Leonardo DiCaprio also may do a film after he and Russell Crowe complete “Body of Lies” for director Ridley Scott at Warner Bros. And Crowe and Scott may move on to “Nottingham” at Universal.

On the comedy side, studios are eagerly watching to see if Will Ferrell commits to “Land of the Lost” at Universal, even as WB courts him for “Himmelfarb,” a comedy that casts him as a loser producer who’s embraced by the family of a girl who can’t stand him. Also in the mix are Jack Black, who could do one project before he starts the Harold Ramis-directed “Year One” in January.

If Ben Stiller delays post-production on the film he directed, “Tropic Thunder,” he could squeeze in an acting job.

Studios have been asking about Steve Carell, but landing him will be especially tough. Once Carell wraps “Get Smart,” he must contend with a 30-episode order of his NBC sitcom “The Office,” a schedule that will keep him shooting until late April.

Meanwhile, writers’ agents say they are booking script-doctoring gigs by the week, a trend that will become elevated later this year as studios hammer the bugs out of scripts before production starts.

While this production rush is a bit crazy, it’s not necessarily creating an atmosphere of fear in studio suites.

“Studios will feel no pressure to make a deal, because they’ll have more product than they need,” says one agent.

Says one senior exec, “If the result is a slightly less crowded release schedule, that might not be so bad, because the current crowding is hurting everyone’s films.”

It also could simply lead to better projects.

“The last time there was a strike, the best writers — the ones who jump from assignment to assignment — sat back and wrote spec scripts,” says one senior studio exec. “This is the kind of new and original material that only comes when writers are motivated by the need to get paid when a strike ends. That could lead to some terrific movies.”

As for the vacations? There’s always next year.

“More than a few people are cutting vacations short this year, but are looking to take much longer ones next summer,” says the rep. “Whether there is a strike or not, this place is going to be a ghost town next summer.”

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