TV industry feeling brunt of WGA woes
The wave of euphoria that swept over Hollywood following the end of the WGA strike has been replaced by a whole new set of emotions: anxiety, depression, fear, nervousness — and anger.
One month after scribes put down their pickets, a March malaise has set in, with folks in town wondering when — or if — things will get back to “normal.”
There are significantly fewer TV pilots, budgets for series are being cut back, feature films are being put on hold in fear of a SAG walkout, and the shifts in the TV and film skeds have meant either accelerated workloads or prolonged unemployment.
And all this is occurring as everyone is feeling the pinch of an overall economy that’s in or heading into recession.
On the TV side, dramatically fewer pilots are in production compared to most years, resulting in reduced employment for helmers and thesps already hit hard by the WGA strike. Many of those pilots that have been picked up are being hastily assembled to be ready for the May upfronts, creating extra stress and pressure for scribes and development execs.
Meanwhile, to make up for revenues lost during the strike, networks and studios are holding onto each penny as if it were their last, cutting back on development deals and being stingy with raises. “There’s a real sense that faucets are not fully open,” one scribe on a top network drama said.
On the film front, the mood is a bit less glum, with reports of brisk business in the spec and book markets, as well as numerous projects just waiting to be cleared for takeoff.
What’s more, the expected flurry of post-strike films are in a holding pattern — in part because fear of a SAG walkout this summer is causing execs to think twice about greenlights.
Thunder Road producer Basil Iwanyk said that the overall level of anxiety and stress around town is “very high,” and that anyone who claims otherwise “is lying.”
“Everybody is shocked there wasn’t a barrage of scripts,” he said. Iwanyk, who also works in TV, said the small-screen biz is “a complete catastrophe.”
As if there weren’t enough bad news, many observers worry that the meltdown of the larger U.S. economy will soon hit Hollywood hard, resulting in even tougher times. Observers cite everything from Time Warner’s downsizing of New Line to CBS supremo Leslie Moonves’ decision to ax the Eye’s annual Tavern on the Green upfront bash as evidence of the sort feeding Hollywood’s current anxiety.
“There’s a huge amount of crankiness right now, and everybody — particularly agents — feels like they’re getting screwed,” one top lawyer said.
A studio chief laments what’s been “a very upsetting year. The pressure and the anxiety are getting to people.”
A network chief, meanwhile, said Hollywood’s mood simply echoes what’s going on in the real world.
“It’s a reflection of the national psyche,” he said. “We’re in a very tenuous place in this country right now, and Hollywood is no different.”
In such a toxic environment, it’s easy for some to start ascribing the worst of intentions to various parties’ actions. In the same way that some execs were convinced that WGA leaders were hell-bent on striking, some writers’ reps believe the cost-cutting and downsizing taking place in Hollywood isn’t a mere matter of economics.
“The studios are punishing writers for going out,” one partner at a major talent agency argued. “They want to take their pound of flesh, so they’re pushing back deals and not making new ones.”
That point of view is dismissed, however, by almost all execs and even many talent reps. As annoyed as they are by the new belt tightening, many believe there’s nothing more sinister behind the reduced largess than congloms taking advantage of the fact that they have more leverage in a post-strike environment.
“The market needed a correction, and that’s what’s been happening,” one rep said. “When your guy goes from $4.5 million for three years to $1.5 million for three years, that’s going to be painful. But the ultimate revenues from these deals weren’t justifying the money for what’s essentially research and development.”
Hart Hanson, creator of Fox’s “Bones,” also hasn’t seen any evidence of companies out to “get” scribes. He describes a “general atmosphere of parsimony in the air.”
“Nobody’s getting a big fat raise, at least not easily or automatically,” he said. “I feel I have to justify expenditures even more than usual. I have to say, though, I don’t get the sense of the companies ‘taking revenge.’ The strike hurt their bottom line, and they are trying, as corporations, to mitigate the financial hit they endured. There’s not the feeling of personal vengeance behind it.”
A TV studio chief is less generous in responding to the notion that companies are out for payback, calling those who make such accusations “crybabies.”
“I’m not trying to get back at anyone,” the exec said. “This is just the ebb and flow of any market and being true to what people’s value really is.”
While execs like to maintain the appearance that they have no other choice but to be frugal, occasionally one will cop to taking advantage of the fear and anxiety that has resulted from the strike. One studio chief even conceded that congloms are purposely taking a hard line, even when they can afford to be a bit more generous.
“To a degree, everyone’s involved in a game of chicken,” the exec said. “I have been sort of laying down the law to see if I can get away with it. I’m telling people, ‘You’re only getting a show deal’ (with no extra coin for development). And it’s mostly been working. I’m sure that’s part of the reason people feel so crabby. But if I can get something for a little under retail price, why not?”
No wonder then that TV overall deals, while still being made, are an endangered species on most studio lots. Many of the scribes who saw their overalls eliminated during the strike are slowly realizing that they’re not going to get a new pact somewhere else (though reports of bidding wars for a few scribes make clear there will continue to be exceptions for top talent).
Even those with jobs and deals aren’t immune to the pain.
Mid-level scribes looking forward to the usual pay bumps that accompany the start of a new season have also received bad news in recent weeks: Forget about the raises. Because the strike resulted in far fewer episodes being produced this season, execs believe segs that will air next fall should be treated as this season’s episodes.
“Why should someone who’s rendered services for eight or 10 episodes instead of 22 be bumped up?” one studio chief asked. “Why would I want to increase costs like that? We’re dealing with things in an appropriately tougher manner.”
TV actors, many of whom lost significant income because of the strike, now find themselves contending with the fallout from TV’s strike-altered production schedules. Rather than going on summer break, many shows will be in production throughout the next few months — a big problem for thesps who had committed to do features during their now-canceled hiatuses.
“I’ve had more requests from actors looking to be let out to do feature films that I can ever remember,” a studio exec said. “It’s causing a lot of challenges.”
Adding to the chaos: the craziest pilot season anyone can remember.
Some networks, such as ABC, have greenlit just a few pilots this year. While that will change, nobody expects the Alphabet to be in a rush to get projects ready for the May upfronts.
At CBS and CW, however, things are proceeding almost as if there hadn’t been a strike, with plenty of projects in the pipeline. The problem, according to producers, is that CBS and CW execs want pilots or presentations delivered in about half the normal time.
“This is 100 times crazier than usual,” said one frenzied studio chief. “We have no road map.”
A network topper talked almostly longingly about the stability of the old system. “Pilot season was crazy, but it had a certain madness to it that created momentum,” he said. “Everyone got addicted to it. Now, we’re all suffering from withdrawal pains.”
While much of Hollywood’s current funk can be chalked up to fallout from the strike and the sagging national economy, several observers point to another cause — particularly in the TV business.
Even as they caution against grand pronouncements — “Pilots are dead!,” “Overall deals don’t make sense!,” “Streaming video is the future!” — execs agree that the business is in the middle of a massive upheaval.
For example, it once made sense to sign a dozen comedy scribes to development pacts because odds were that one of those deals would result in a “Friends” or a “Two and a Half Men.” But with networks measuring primetime success by a much smaller yardstick, and syndie revenue a fraction of its former self, having a large roster of comedy talent on staff now just seems stupid.
Such wholesale changes to the biz help explain the actions of Chris Barrett, owner of the Metropolitan Talent Agency. He recently revamped his business, getting rid of most of his agents and clients.
“This decision wasn’t made because of the writers strike or the de facto actors strike,” he said. “This is symptomatic of a bigger situation, and became about what do I need to do over the next five years? There has been a disruption at the broadcast networks and cable delivery systems.”
Some agents, however, believe execs need to be careful about just how hard a line they take with talent. Push too hard, they argue, and creative types could just end up abandoning the studio system altogether.
“The studios are being short-sighted,” one tenpercenter said. “They’re biting the hands that feed them. As long as content is controlled by creators, we’re going to be in the driver’s seat.”
(Diane Garrett and Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)