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A majeure headache

Studios could terminate contracts under rule

“Force majeure” — it even sounds ominous.

The possibility that Hollywood’s studios could terminate contracts with creative talent under force majeure conditions has hung over the industry like the sword of Damocles since the writers strike commenced Nov. 5.

The biz is on pins and needles as the work stoppage moves into its seventh week, the common threshold in contracts for triggering force majeure, essentially an escape clause if there’s an unforeseen event so disruptive (think fire, flood, earthquake or strike) that it becomes impossible for both sides to adhere to the terms of the contract.

Nobody expects to see mass firings at the major film studios come Dec. 17. The situation is far more precarious for those working in TV than in film, where the longer lead time on projects provides something of a time cushion. On the TV side, industry execs say deals are closely being scrutinized, but each will be evaluated on its merits rather than in a cost-cutting binge effort.

Most vulnerable are the studio-based non-writing producer pacts that have proliferated in television over the past decade. Many have already been suspended, meaning they’re no longer getting paid or have access to development funds. Insiders say those producers who have had mixed track records in delivering success to their studios are most likely to feel the burn of force majeure separation.

On the flip side, even if a strike has left them with nothing to do for the moment, TV studios are unlikely to sever ties with prominent producers who are attached to successful shows that will eventually go back before the cameras.

Among writers, the decision of who to keep and who to cut is an even trickier call for studios, especially for those scribes who were in the early months of a long-term deal when the strike erupted. That promising newcomer you decided to take a chance on with a modest two-year overall deal could be poised to create the next “Seinfeld.” Or not. Industry veterans point out that no matter how many writer and producer pacts the network-studio congloms let loose, they still won’t save enough coin to offset the losses from the lack of fresh segs of their hit shows.

The roster-trimming is not expected to be as significant among feature producers with studio housekeeping deals, given the recent ramp-up of pic production. A few smaller fry might be cut loose but as one agent notes, “Studios are so busy that they haven’t really had to time to think about ending deals early.”

Tenpercenteries, on the other hand, are going to take the biggest hits as long as agents are stymied from moving on new projects.

“I spend most of my time dealing with people who go from job to job, so I have less and less to do every day,” says an agent.

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