SAG strike concerns stall feature activity

With little certainty about when the contract stalemate between the Screen Actors Guild and the majors will end, the employment picture for thesps has turned into a tale of two cities — one hopping with TV lensing activity, the other slowing to a crawl on the film side.

That scenario’s likely to persist for the immediate future. SAG wrapped its off-the-record sidebar session Wednesday with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers after several hours with both sides refusing to disclose any details and the congloms noting no further meetings have been skedded.

The AMPTP and SAG have been in a stalemate for over two weeks, ever since the majors handed SAG its final offer for a new three-year contract. As a result, activity on studio features has all but dried up for the next few months as the majors appear unwilling to risk starting more pics this year.

Studio execs and dealmakers said that the business will not ramp back up until late fall, when studios will prep for January production starts on films that will fill holes in their 2010 schedules. Until then, the more than 500 indie pics that have secured waivers from SAG are taking up some of the slack for working thesps (though not the A players), as is the bustling TV biz.

In television, the majors are forging ahead with a number of primetime shows and pilots actively in production, and a slew of others set to go before the cameras next month, in keeping with the traditional pre-season sked for lensing starts.

Why the difference between film and television? It’s all about the calendar. TV has more urgent sked demands, and after giving up the 2007-08 season as lost due to the writers strike, the nets have no intention of holding back their big scripted guns if they can avoid it. Top brass at the major TV studios have said they’re willing to shut down if need be in the case of an actors strike; until then, the focus is on banking as many episodes as possible for the 2008-09 campaign.

On the film side, most of the majors are in relatively good shape for the 2009 release sked thanks to the ramp-up of production undertaken earlier this year in anticipation of the June 30 expiration of SAG’s contract. Each of the majors put as many as 11 pictures into production early this year, running through their annual production allotments and filling pipelines for 2009 and part of 2010. They don’t need any more films, and several are looking to shrink the number they make each year.

Studios are also reluctant to sked more pic starts any time soon because of the risk and insurance costs they’d face in the event of a strike — even though SAG still hasn’t called for a strike authorization, which would require a 75% approval and take three weeks.

At this point, few expect a work stoppage any time soon.

Meanwhile, those films that braved production starts that extended past June 30 are now fast cruising to completion. Those pics hedged some of their risk by building hiatus clauses into cast and crew contracts. These would allow them to shut down at a moment’s notice but retain the right to call everyone back as soon as the labor situation was settled. As it turned out, those clauses have not been invoked on such pics as “Terminator Salvation,” “Angels & Demons,” “A Thousand Words,” “Night at the Museum 2″ and “Transformers 2.”

Other planned projects have not been as fortunate. Insiders said that Focus Features was moving toward a late summer start on the Ang Lee-directed “Taking Woodstock,” but the studio is now looking toward spring because of the SAG uncertainty.

A strike would be particularly damaging because the film revolves around the Woodstock festival in the summer of ’69. The helmer needs to work in summertime weather and environmental conditions in his upstate New York lensing sights. If it isn’t clear by week’s end that SAG and AMPTP will make a deal, the film will be pushed until next spring.

Studios have decided to sit out the summer, and the fall, for that matter. There are a few exceptions: Sony just began production on the Roland Emmerich-directed “2012,” Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer expect to begin production in Morocco on “Prince of Persia” on July 24, and Universal is set to push the start button Aug. 19 on the Ridley Scott-directed Russell Crowe starrer “Nottingham” in London.

In some cases, the studio’s hand is forced by the problems that a skedding shift would create in terms of star availability. Warner Bros. will begin shooting its Guy Ritchie-directed “Sherlock Holmes” in October, primarily because Robert Downey Jr. needs to be done by next spring, when he’ll begin gearing up for “Iron Man 2.”

Some suspect that the paucity of studio starts in the second half of this year is a punitive move by the majors, but one major agency topper felt that it’s more a function of the cards played by SAG and the WGA.

“There was a strike-created cycle that pushed films to accelerate production on many movies that wrapped, and there is nothing to do now but wait for that cycle to end,” said the rep. In the meantime, the playing field is wide open to indie pics that do not have any studio financing.

Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein are plotting a fall start on “Inglorious Bastards,” though an expected deal with a studio for offshore distribution rights could complicate attempts to shoot with a SAG waiver.

Helmer Peter Weir is looking at a possible fall start for “To Light a Fire,” about prisoners who escape from a Siberian labor camp in 1942.

Grant Heslov is looking to direct his Smoke House partner George Clooney in “The Man Who Stared at Goats,” a film that has a SAG waiver and is set to begin production late September.

The Weinstein Co. is also going into production this fall in London on “Nine,” the Rob Marshall-directed musical to be financed by Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media. Its all-star cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench and Kate Hudson.

Projects in the hopper at indies including Millennium Films, Summit and Gold Circle will also help ease the studio pic crunch in the short term, biz insiders said.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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