No new talks have yet been scheduled

As the writers strike enters its second week, the level of hostility in Hollywood continues to grow.

With hopes for resuming negotiations having cratered and TV skeins going dark, early layoffs have already hit the TV sector hard. But the pain will likely extend to other areas over the next month as companies use “force majeure” clauses to negate term deals and reduce actors’ paychecks.

Because force majeure clauses usually require six weeks after a strike has started to kick in, there’s a lurking suspicion that the companies won’t push for a quick return to the bargaining table.

WGA picketing resumes today in Los Angeles at the major studio lots, with the guild telling supporters to show up at 6 a.m., three hours earlier than last week. The crack-of-dawn start means that Teamster trucks will likely turn away from studio gates, since that union allows individual members to honor picket lines without reprisal.

Back-channel efforts to jumpstart WGA negotiations have been largely halted, even though bargaining had been progressing when talks fell apart on Nov. 4. The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers is demanding that the WGA institute a cooling-off period as a condition for re-starting talks; the WGA insists that the AMPTP respond more substantively to its most recent package.

Three months of harsh negotiating rhetoric — combined with widely differing interpretations of the contract talks — have fueled resentment on both sides. And it’s started to poison relationships in a town where connections are the coin of the realm.

“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane touched a nerve Friday when he elicited perhaps the angriest response among the 4,000 attendees at Friday’s WGA rally at Fox Plaza. Invoking the image of the companies as schoolyard bullies, he recounted that all “Family Guy” assistants had been fired by Fox on the third day of the strike.

“Instead of negotiating, they lashed out at the little guy,” MacFarlane added. “What a classy move.”

Some fear that the strike will allow studios and networks to employ a scorched-earth approach to cut expenses and punish those who have fallen out of favor. Force majeure terms provide opt-out provisions in the event of an occurrence beyond the control of the parties. While top producers often have clauses in their deals that preclude them from being discharged under these terms, smaller producers and writers are vulnerable.

For now, film execs say they have not been considering the implications of force majeure because they were so busy preparing to put films into production.

The most optimistic view is that companies might “suspend and extend” deals and project commitments as a way to freeze costs without putting projects and people out on the street permanently — where they could be picked up and turned into successes elsewhere.

But all agree that it’s not a good time for a producer with an overall deal to to be stuck without a film going into production for their home studio. Unproductive overall deals will likely be in the cross-hairs, and if studios can get out of commitments with striking writers on projects that didn’t pan out those projects will be jettisoned.

Development staffs are in jeopardy since there are only a few scripts to read. Support staff infrastructure is also in trouble, and the strike is impacting expense accounts, which have been cut to the quick at studios, production companies and agencies.

As for actors, SAG is already providing guidance to the hundreds of “series regulars” regarding what to expect. Under force majeure provisions covering SAG actors, producers can either terminate an actor and lose exclusivity for the season or suspend thesps for five weeks and pay half salary with the performer still bound to the contract.

At five weeks, the employer can terminate and lose exclusivity or restore full salary with exclusivity. If the series resumes and the actor has been terminated, they can be called back. But there’s no more exclusivity.

SAG general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the actors guild wasn’t aware yet of any force majeure actions hitting the guild’s members. SAG’s current weekly minimum for TV performers is $2,634.

A manager who’s active in booking actors into TV pilots said the situation is tough for thespsin that area because of the uncertainty of pilot season. She noted that those actors and those who are on suspended series won’t be able to compete for parts in films starting in the spring; she also expects the competition for roles in these movies to be ferocious, because it might be the last time these actors work in awhile.

Leaders from the Big Five agencies huddled with toppers at the WGA West late last week to explore strategies for a possible resolution. But a person with knowledge of the get-together described the outcome as not encouraging.

In another development, NBC is mulling the idea of using substitute hosts to replace its latenight stars.

From virtually the moment the strike started, most of the major latenight skeins told their non-scribe staffers they’d be laid off in two weeks if the writers didn’t return to work (Daily Variety, Nov. 7). To avoid such layoffs, there’s been buzz that Dave, Jay and company might come back to work sooner than the four months it took for Johnny Carson to return in 1988.

Now, however, NBC is at least considering the option of using guest hosts to fill in for Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. While one latenight insider flatly labeled such an idea “bullshit” –arguing the Peacock wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Leno or O’Brien — “Tonight Show” exec producer Debbie Vickers issued a statement Friday conceding that it’s a possibility.

“All sorts of things are being discussed, including guest hosts,” she said. “Our preference is that we return to production of ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jay as host as soon as possible. We want to protect the staff, who have been loyal to this show for decades, in the same way that Johnny Carson reluctantly returned without his writers in 1988.”

Of course, NBC would have to find talent willing to cross picket lines to host the shows. Booking talent might also be difficult, since some actors might balk at appearing to disregard the WGA so blatantly.

A more likely scenario is that one of the latenight hosts — perhaps Letterman, or maybe Jimmy Kimmel — would opt to return to his show sans scribes. Some latenight insiders think that could happen as soon as next week, or perhaps immediately following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Such a move also carries some risk, however, as evidenced by the strong reaction Ellen DeGeneres sparked by returning to work. That move sparked an inter-union brawl between AFTRA and the WGA after DeGeneres — who belongs to both unions — opted to continue working on her daytime talker during the past week.

The fight came into the open Friday, when the WGA East issued a press release blasting DeGeneres for continuing to perform comedy in violation of strike rules: “Ellen said she loves and supports her writers, but her actions prove otherwise.”

AFTRA topper Kim Roberts Hedgpeth declared in a letter to WGA East chief Mona Mangan that DeGeneres is required to work.

“As you know, AFTRA members such as Ms. DeGeneres who are working under the AFTRA Network TV Code (which covers ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’) are legally required by the no-strike clause of that contract to report to work and perform their AFTRA-covered responsibilities,” she wrote. “Ms. DeGeneres, along with thousands of entertainment-industry workers represented by AFTRA and other unions who are bound by similar no-strike clauses, are also reporting to work as legally required.”

But Mangan said DeGeneres is wrong: “Beyond any issue of membership, there is the obvious ethical issue, which is clearly present in Ms. DeGeneres’ decision to write and produce a show without writers in the face of an industrywide walkout by 12,000 writers.”

(Josef Adalian and Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)

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