Studios, networks making contingency plans

Paralysis is fast setting in.

Just as the scripted TV biz was starting to get out from under the upheaval caused by the writers strike, the threat of a work stoppage by actors has studios and nets making contingency plans for the upcoming season.

The majors are putting the brakes on production starts for features and TV pilots for fear that the Screen Actors Guild will call a strike following the June 30 expiration date of its feature-primetime deal. A few pics now shooting, such as “Angels and Demons” and “Transformers 2,” have a built-in hiatus next month; the next batch of tentpole features, including “2012,” “Prince of Persia” and “Nottingham,” won’t start until late summer as a hedge against the labor strife likely to play out in July.

The key date for the studio decisionmaking has now become July 7, when AFTRA should announce the results of its ratification vote on its primetime deal. Contract negotiations between SAG and the majors aren’t expected to lead to a deal before then — because SAG has tied its fortunes to defeating the pact reached by rival actors union AFTRA, which has 44,000 dual members with SAG. The guild has not yet scheduled a strike authorization vote, which would take three weeks to complete and require 75% approval from those voting.

Despite SAG’s efforts, the AFTRA ratification vote is expected to pass. Once the results are announced, the congloms are likely to make a “last, best and final” offer to SAG, leading in short order either to a deal or a possible lockout by the companies. Though the lockout strategy is risky for the congloms from a PR standpoint, taking such a step would preempt SAG from pulling the plug later on, with features and series in mid-production, via a strike.

For now, the landscape’s already unsettled in TV — although, in an unintended result of the writers strike, the work stoppage may have helped the nets’ contingency plans for a potential SAG strike. That’s because some shows weren’t brought back in midseason, giving the nets and studios a jump on fall.

As a result, skeins like NBC’s “Heroes” and ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money” were able to start shooting in early May. Several procedural dramas barely took a break before firing things back up in May, including “CSI,” “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case.” Other shows that never really shut down or didn’t power down cameras for long include “House,” “ER,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Chuck” and “Law & Order.” CBS comedy tentpole “Two and a Half Men,” resumed production on Monday, as did the net’s “The Big Bang Theory.”

Then there’s the case of “24,” which skipped a season because of the writers strike, allowing it to bank several episodes for this year. Because “24” won’t return until January, the show could conceivably weather an actors strike without any effect onscreen.

But that’s the exception to the rule. Even shows that started production early will have only a handful of segs in the can before the June 30 deadline. Fox faces a big decision in the next few weeks on whether to forge ahead with plans for a marketing blitz on frosh drama “Fringe,” which has a Sept. 9 preem date for its two-hour pilot. A production start on that show is apparently skedded for early next month.

Cable nets also have several projects in production at the moment, including “Army Wives,” “Saving Grace,” “The Closer” and “Monk.” But those nets can simply move back premiere dates or cut series telecasts short without too much disruption.

A handful of AFTRA series will be able to continue even if SAG goes on strike — depending on the ratification vote. If AFTRA members approve their new contract, Fox’s “ ’Til Death,” CBS’ “Rules of Engagement” and CW’s “Reaper” will be able to continue — unless thesps decide to march with SAG. Given the enmity between the unions, that’s an unlikely prospect.

The latenight gabfests all operate under AFTRA jurisdiction but will have to find a way to book nonactor guests. Bookers on the shows that didn’t receive a Writers Guild of America waiver last winter have already gone through that exercise once this year — and will have to hit the Rolodex once again for politicians, sports stars, musicians, authors and other guests to fill the time.

The idea of a lockout doesn’t sit well with TV execs, who plan to plow ahead with production even after June 30. The goal, after all, is to bank as many episodes before a work stoppage — and a work stoppage would be counterproductive (not to mention a death knell for their fall launches).

At the moment, the projects most impacted by the air of uncertainty are pilots scheduled for shooting in July. In these cases, studios may decide it’s not worth spending the money necessary to prep a pilot only to have to pull the plug in the event of a strike. (There’s no word yet of any pilots having been postponed.)

And though major studio pics will grind to a halt, there’s plenty of activity on the indie feature front. Productions that have obtained a SAG waiver (or guaranteed completion contract) can shoot even if there’s a strike.

SAG signed 312 such deals at last count, including for such high-profile pics as “Bad Lieutenant,” “W,” “Big Eyes,” “Killing Pablo,” “Pandorum,” “Labor Pains,” “Edge of Darkness” and “Brooklyn’s Finest” (Daily Variety, June 2).

Others include the following:

  • Endgame’s romantic comedy “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy,” with Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Leslie Bibb, Lake Bell and Lindsay Sloane. Pic’s currently shooting in North Carolina

  • Relativity’s “A Perfect Getaway,” a thriller starring Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich

  • Anonymous Content’s “44-Inch Chest,” a drama starring Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Joanne Whalley and John Hurt

  • Lionsgate’s “Shrink,” starring Kevin Spacey, directed by Jonas Pate. Saffron Burrows, Jack Huston, Robin Williams, Robert Loggia, Gore Vidal, Dallas Roberts and Mark Webber also star; shooting’s already started in Los Angeles.

Negotiations between SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers entered their 31st day Monday with neither side commenting, though people close to the bargaining stress that progress has been elusive. Talks are expected to resume today.

AFTRA ballots should be hitting member mailboxes this week. High-profile members endorsing the deal include James Cromwell, Jane Curtin and Sally Field; in addition, AFTRA’s been sending automated phone calls to members with Cromwell urging a yes vote.

SAG’s contended that the AFTRA deal falls short in areas such as new-media jurisdiction and compensation, middle-class actor salaries, DVD residuals, force majeure protections and product-integration protections. Both SAG and AFTRA reps are holding “roadshows” this week at the major talent agencies to brief agents as to their positions.

SAG has also challenged AFTRA to hold a two-hour debate about the AFTRA deal but AFTRA spurned the invite Monday. SAG’s blamed AFTRA’s deal for its lack of progress at the bargaining table, and president Alan Rosenberg said in a letter to AFTRA that a debate would be informative and productive since members are receiving “conflicting information” about the AFTRA agreement and its impact on SAG’s negotiations.

AFTRA prexy Roberta Reardon said SAG’s all wet.

“What is distracting and confusing for our members — and frankly, many in the entertainment industry — are SAG’s efforts to interfere with AFTRA’s ratification process,” she added. “SAG’s misguided rhetoric and theatrics — holding rallies, town hall meetings and the distribution of misinformation about the AFTRA contract — are certainly not serving the best interests of performers.”

In a message to members Monday, AFTRA said, “Don’t be fooled by spin. AFTRA, like the WGA and DGA before it, has negotiated a great agreem
ent that delivers substantial improvements in wages and working conditions for all its members. We’ve done this in the midst of a challenging economic climate, at a moment of rapid and unsettling technological change, in an industry that is still recovering from the economic devastation of a 100-day strike. This is a time for tough-minded realism, not posturing and empty rhetoric. If you vote against ratifying the AFTRA deal, you are essentially voting for chaos in the industry.”

(Michael Fleming contributed to this report.)

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