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Possible strike has studios making deals

In Hollywood, as in the Boy Scouts, the motto remains the same: Always be prepared.

Most of all, be prepared for a strike that may never happen.

A writer’s strike won’t loom until Halloween, and deadlines on actors and directors’ deals won’t arrive until mid-2008. That leaves plenty of time for new contracts to be struck, but studios are nevertheless planning ahead in case they aren’t. Among the early signs of pre-strike activity: stepped-up orders of TV episodes on the QT and brisk deal activity on the feature side.

Studios are especially hungry for projects that can complete lensing by next June, and they’ve placed a premium on scripts that won’t require massive rewrites, like Michael Mann‘s Hollywood period drama to star Leonardo DiCaprio. That project, and Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of “Lovely Bones,” sparked bidding last week, and participants attributed some of the activity to their arrival amid fears of potential guild-driven work stoppage.

Stars, meanwhile, are lining up back-to-back projects they can complete, down to reshoots and looping work, by June. (The current SAG contract expires June 30.)

Insiders expect eight more weeks of brisk deal-making, with productions dramatically ramping up in the second half of the year through February.

“Warner and Universal have told me to my face: ‘We are stockpiling,'” says Circle of Confusion partner David Alpert, whose management and production company reps a slew of TV and feature scribes.

“We are being advised to prepare for a strike,” an agent confirms. “It’s not expected this year, but next year. Studios are operating under that assumption.”

“Everyone’s very mindful of the possibility of a strike,” a Sony producer says. “You talk about when a movie might go and whether the script is safe and actors will be available before a strike. Even though (a strike’s) a long shot, it’s now part of the everyday vernacular.”

Observers say studios are eager to avoid repeating the mistakes of the last buildup before a potential strike, when they rushed a bunch of sub-par films into production. There are reports of script doctors being commandeered by studios to polish projects so they’re ready to go into production.

A late-year production boom could lead to fierce competish for d.p.’s, crews and camera equipment.

But for now, the buildup is in preliminary stages. Another Sony producer estimates that there are 20% to 25% more deals than usual being struck right now.

“There’s a step up — nothing outrageous,” he says. “Nobody wants to be too complacent.”

Not everyone is convinced the town’s moved to pre-strike mode, however. One agency topper advised Variety it’s too early, while another tenpercenter pooh-poohed the notion of stockpiling.

Memories of the last averted strike may be adding to the sense of caution: The WGA let its contract go past expiration in May 2004 and didn’t get a deal until after the DGA, five months later.

But strike dread is already palpable in certain quarters: At last week’s “Backstage at the Geffen” gala, David Mamet entertained the aud with a string of one-liners about a possible strike: “Down in the Valley they’re making a reality show about the writers’ strike,” he cracked.

It got a huge laugh.

A few months from now, such jokes might not seem so funny.

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