It would take months for majors to feel impact
Hollywood’s film studios won’t be hitting the panic button anytime soon.For much of the past year, they have been prepping for a possible walkout, so the 2008 release slate should proceed as scheduled. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be headaches along the way. The events of the past week mean that marketing of films will be thrown for a loop, and there are expected to be effects on the film biz that extend way past 2008. In the short term, talks between the Writers Guild and producers have already created a changed atmosphere at the studios. “It has become about cold, hard business,” said one high-level studio exec, “where everyone is going to look at all their commitments and eliminate the ones that aren’t necessary. Everyone will be reshuffling their businesses to make them run more efficiently, and it is going to happen fast and hard. That goes for studios and talent agencies.” Executives at the majors collected scripts for high-profile projects that will lense next year and bow in 2009. And, before the Oct. 31 expiration of the WGA pact, they also swapped notes with scribes on these works. In fact, 50 features are said to be in preparation for lensing in the coming months, with many still to be cast. That doesn’t include pics produced by specialty arms or finance entities funded by Wall Street dollars. For 2008, most of the productions set to bow have already lensed or are gearing up to start production imminently. Next year’s slate also includes pics bumped from this year, including a slew of horror titles like “Trick ‘R Treat” and “The Eye.” And if release schedules still need augmenting, there are always potential pickups at Sundance in January. Many believe that the frenzied filming in the next months will create a de facto work stoppage in 2008. But even before then, a strike would first be felt by studio staffers and the producers and talent reps they do business with. Another question centers on some producers’ term deals at studios, according to Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney with Troy Gould. In recent weeks, both sides have hinted that studios could invoke force majeure to clean house and eliminate some producing deals. (Force majeure terms provide opt-out provisions in the event of an occurrence beyond the control of the parties.) While many producers with clout have clauses in their deals that preclude them from being discharged under these terms, studios would probably invoke force majeure to notify smaller producers that their contracts could be terminated if a strike lingers. The usual period to trigger actual termination is four to six weeks once a strike has begun. For pics going into production, producers would have to get creative in how scripts are reworked during filming. There’s been talk that actors in comedies might be allowed to improvise, or that directors, producers or thesps will be allowed to tackle rewrites as long as they’re not WGA members. Production of animated films will likely continue undisturbed because toons are not under WGA jurisdiction, even if the guild has demanded that members not write for animated pics. Studio marketing mavens were also rethinking strategies. Fearing that a strike would quickly affect talkshows (where they parade their biggest stars to promote films), marketing execs have had to consider devoting more ad dollars to TV spots and the Web. While Jerry Seinfeld recently made the rounds to tubthump DreamWorks Animation’s “Bee Movie,” that avenue would be closed to marketers for upcoming films if “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and other yakkers went into reruns. “We’ll just have to rely on more traditional methods to promote our movies,” said one studio marketing executive. “For some movies, you need to have your stars out there talking them up, to get people excited, but we won’t have that option as much.” The ad-spending conundrum also is affected by primetime. If there is a strike, networks would likely air a lot more reruns, which will attract lower ratings — meaning studios will have to spend more to reach fewer potential ticket buyers. This wouldn’t apply to this season’s holiday movies since nets would still have original episodes on tap at that point. The strike also could hit book authors, according to Handel, a former WGA counsel. Producers could terminate options on book deals under force majeure. Gotham publishers and lit agents aren’t panicking yet. But some who were reached on the eve of the deadline expected the walkout to create some headaches. “Buyers will probably hesitate for a little while because they won’t be able to immediately attach a screenwriter to a project,” said one editor at a top house. “That’s the initial step in the process that helps everyone see how a book will come to life.” Screen rights to mega-selling or hotly tipped tomes will likely continue to sell, with adaptation assignments delayed until after the strike. It’s the low- and middle-end rights deals that could get bottlenecked. But if a long strike leads to a reduction in the number of pics made, some studio sources say that would be a good thing, given the abundance of films competing for the same number of screens at multiplexes this year. (Dave McNary, Dade Hayes, Michael Fleming and Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)
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