Pic development gives way to strike concerns

The writer’s strike may be over, but the town is still in gridlock mode.

While many studio execs are cautiously optimistic that an actors’ walkout won’t happen, Hollywood majors are refusing to schedule new start dates on films that can’t complete shooting by June 30.

That puts the onus on SAG leaders and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to get down to bargaining so that the town can truly get back to work.

“We’re back in the development business, but when it comes to production, everything is up in the air,” said one studio chief.

The uncertainty has prompted Steven Spielberg to halt an April production start on the Aaron Sorkin-scripted DreamWorks drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” He’ll take the extra time to hone the script with Sorkin. Only Sacha Baron Cohen had been set to play Abbie Hoffman — and is now looking at summer or fall start date — when the prospect of an actor’s strike should be in the rear view mirror.

Says one production prexy: “The studios are sick of it, and the actors are tired of being out of work. At the same time, we’re all prepared for a de facto strike. Everybody is designing their production schedules to anticipate an interruption.”

Execs say that the extra costs incurred to halt and re-start a film can range from $1 million to $5 million on each production, a costly prospect if several films get unplugged.

Most studios are in the midst of shooting pictures that will be done by June and ready for release in 2009.

“Transformers 2″ director Michael Bay said the labor cloud has made the process harder, but not impossible as he tries to keep the film on track for its June 26, 2009 release.

“If there is a strike, we shut down, but shutting down isn’t that big a deal,” Bay said. “You make accommodations, you make a deal with vending houses on equipment and on the stages where you are shooting. You hope for the best, but you can’t be incapacitated by the possibility that there will be a strike. We’ve got to get this town back to work. I can’t imagine anyone wants another strike, we’re all tired. Hopefully clearer heads will prevail.”

Bay said that the sequel is still recovering from the writer’s strike, and that he’s playing catch-up after getting back his trio of writers, Ehren Kruger, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.

“They did a detailed outline before the writer’s strike, and now they are in Michael Bay jail, holed up in a hotel and working feverishly,” Bay said. “We’re paying for a beautiful suite and they are getting a lot of work done. Hiring three writers was unusual, but it has been a godsend in getting us to where we need to be. Somehow you find a way to get it done.”

Several of the majors are setting additional plans for summer starts, based on the assumption that the SAG contract talks will be resolved without the kind of work stoppage that crippled the biz during the 100-day writers strike. The sense of confidence is bolstered by the fact that a group of top actors, including George Clooney and Tom Hanks, are publicly putting pressure on SAG leaders to avoid such a defacto strike scenario and begin negotiations as soon as possible.

If that doesn’t happens, their 2009 release calendars could get complicated.

Warner Bros. is hoping for director George Miller to begin lensing superhero extravaganza “Justice League” in mid-July. The project has been off-and-on in the last several months, as the script needed work.

The minute the strike was over, scribes Kiernan and Michele Mulroney began rewriting the “Justice League” script. Studio is hoping to get a draft in the next six weeks.

Warners revealed earlier this week that it will begin lensing “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins” on May 5.

DreamWorks also would like to get underway with production of “Transformers 2″ in early June. Pic is set for release on June 26, 2009.

Twentieth Century Fox, for instance, has scheduled August as the start date for “The Tooth Fairy,” a comedy that will star Dwayne Johnson. But that will only happen if a SAG deal is in place. The picture will start a three-month preproduction process in May, so that it can be among the first post-strike pictures to go into production.

Execs said they wanted their pictures to be done by June 15, leaving time for re-shoots, but there will be some stragglers that had to work strike plans into the mix. That includes the Brian Robbins-directed Eddie Murphy comedy “A Thousand Words.” The film begins production in mid-May, won’t finish by June 30, and worked a possible hiatus into all its deals.

That’s a small risk compared to the one for studios that are forging ahead with tentpole films — rushing to make 2009 release dates.

All of them have built-in strike safeguards. Sony will begin shooting its “Da Vinci Code” sequel “Angels & Demons” in Rome on June 5. Director Ron Howard will spend three weeks shooting all of the film’s exterior scenes. The rest of the film will be shot on Sony soundstages, where sets will wait, if necessary, until an actor’s strike is over. That allowed Sony to somewhat contain the costs to halt and re-start the picture.

The producers of “Terminator Salvation” also made deals that will make a stoppage bearable.

Crew was hired with the following deal: in the event of a strike, the paychecks stop, but nobody will be force majeured and everyone will get a plane ticket home from the Albuquerque set. The crew has agreed to fly back within 48 hours of a SAG settlement. The production facility–which would sit idle anyway–agreed to leave sets intact for the duration of a strike, and producers will only pay security guards to protect it. Because of deals made with distributors Warner Bros. and Sony, the producers won’t face prohibitive interest costs.

Like “Angels & Demons,” all exterior scenes will be shot and completed by June 30 so that no extra location rental charges are incurred. Director McG will edit that footage, and visual effects artists will continue their work, moving the project forward even if the actors go home. The movie will be finished on soundstages once actors return to work.

Sony will have to come up with a similar plan on “2012,” a $200 million Roland Emmerich-directed disaster epic which the studio just acquired and earmarked for 2009 summer release. WB and Miller face the same challenge if “Justice League” is to keep its mid-July start date and 2009 release date.

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