Biz in strike zone

H'w'd preps as thesp, scribe actions loom

It’s going to get ugly.

Whether they admit it or not, studio chiefs all over Hollywood have become petrified in recent weeks that the Screen Actors Guild or the Writers Guild of America — or both — will be on strike next June 30 when the SAG contract lapses.

As a result, they’re stockpiling films and scripts to make sure they won’t be left without any product for 2001 and beyond.

Hollywood has rarely seen a two-pronged union convergence like this. And with a 2002 contract expiration for the Directors Guild of America — regarded by many as the industry’s most powerful union — showbiz could be hit with a crippling one-two punch that means no stars, no scripts and most important, no new films or TV shows for a long time.

It could slam-dunk the entire industry: Certainly agents would be hard hit, but the trickle-down effect would KO income for everyone from below-the-line workers to caterers.

A strike would have global implications as well, considering the amount of product for film and TV that the U.S. sends overseas.

Studio clashes

Adding further worry is what many perceive as growing disunity among the corporate owners of studios as shown in Walt Disney Co.’s persistent sniping at the AOL-Time Warner merger.

In the meantime, some see the strike concern as a great opportunity.

Aware that the studios are sweating, agents and managers are stepping up the pressure to sign deals soon and salaries are being ratcheted up accordingly.

Many union leaders are suspicious that the alarm is merely a negotiating ploy since the studios have made few announcements about shifts in production dates. However, senior execs throughout the biz say that with contracts of three key unions expiring, they firmly believe a shutdown is inevitable.

Disney and Spyglass Entertainment have accelerated production on “Ring of Fire” so it can make a 2002 release. And Buena Vista plans for simultaneous looping in post-production on several projects to avoid arriving at July 1 with unfinished films.

Forward ho

“We’re assuming (the strike) is happening,” said Joe Roth, one-time Disney chairman who is now heading up his own production house, Revolution Studios. “So we’re accelerating whatever plans we have. One thing’s for sure: It’s going to be hard to find a good director of photography in March.”

Fox Group prexy Tom Rothman also admitted as much, saying, “We are working our schedules back from the (supposed) strike date. You have to be sure that you can finish by June 2001. We hope for the best and plan for the worst.”

Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal agreed. “We’re doing all we can to prepare, and we wouldn’t start anything we couldn’t finish by June,” she said.

On the TV side, speculation has emerged that high-profile shows may forgo the usual late-spring hiatus after taping 22 episodes and get another six to 10 shows ready for the start of the 2001-02 season, which could leave cast and crew exhausted and angry.

“You’d see a lot of talent being burnt up very quickly,” said SAG president William Daniels, who’s chalked up years as a regular on such TV series as “St. Elsewhere” and “Boy Meets World.” “You really need the hiatus. It’s hard enough to do 22 weeks — so if you do more, you might see a real lowering of artistic standards.”

Daniels and others offered a cocked eye at execs’ nolo contendere claims that they’re speeding up production.

“Perhaps the studios are just posturing now when they talk about speeding up, or perhaps they know that they’re dealing with more determined unions,” said Daniels. “We all sincerely hope there won’t be a strike next year, because it really would shut down the town and be a tremendous blow to the economy.”

In agreement is John McLean, chief exec of the Writers Guild of America West. His union, which will see its contract expire May 1, has not received financial data on residuals that it needs to formulate its contract proposal.

“I see some gamesmanship in talking about accelerated production,” added McLean, who formerly negotiated for CBS. “So it’s a little premature for us to be talking about a strike beyond telling members to be prudent about their finances. We have not said there is going to be a strike.”

Hedging bets

Already, major and middle-size talent and writer agencies in town are discussing the force majeure clauses in their contracts that would allow them to lay off contracted agents wholesale if necessary.

The fast-emerging consensus is that SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists will not only go on strike when their joint film-TV contract expires, they’ll stay out for several months — if not years.

The prospect of a shutdown has been on the radar since the spring, when SAG and AFTRA began their strike against advertisers and called it a precursor for next year’s contract battles.

But nobody was taking it that seriously. Now, the unions have become increasingly angry, not just over the ad industry’s hardball tactics but also over what they see as years of being shortchanged in cable and foreign revenues.

“Perhaps what the studios are sensing is a certain determination to address issues that have been given a free ride for a long time,” Daniels said. “Cable and foreign residuals are areas that are just booming.”

Unions stand tough

As it became evident that the unions would not cave in, studios and producers realized that the 12-year period of labor peace — launched after the 22-week writers strike of 1988 — is over. The recent collapse of ad negotiations, with no date set for resumption, has underscored the need to prepare for next year.

“It’s started to dawn on people what next year might be like,” said attorney Gary Barkin of Sidekick Entertainment. “There’s a scramble to lock in jobs now because if you’re not working next January, you might not be working until January 2002. We’re telling our clients to line up as much work as they can.”

Barkin expected better-than-average markets for sellers at the Toronto and Sundance festivals as distribs look to stock up at relatively low cost. And, as has happened in the past as strike preparations were under way, the creative community may see a temporary upward bump in salaries.

So, for now, Hollywood has become even more of a workaholics’ paradise. Calls are returned promptly, meetings start on time and projects that had been abandoned to development hell for years have been dusted off for serious reconsideration.

The double whammy of labor unrest has created two unofficial new deadlines: Features must be greenlit by Jan. 1 and into production by March 15.

Planning ahead

“Our hope is to have every major writing assignment filled by the time the writers strike hits and every film wrapped by the time the actors strike hits,” declared Nina Jacobson, Buena Vista Motion Pictures prexy.

Producer-manager Warren Zide began telling clients four months ago to prepare for the 2001 strikes. “What the current strike tells me is that SAG and AFTRA are pretty serious about this,” he said.

For now, Zide and partner Craig Perry see a more receptive audience at studios. “Craig and I were always going to make ‘American Pie 2’ and ‘Final Destination 2’ early next year, but now there’s an increased opportunity for additional features,” Zide said.

Another factor is the increasingly militant tone taken by SAG, which voted in a slate of decidedly more aggressive leaders last fall. Months of hostility from the ad industry has unified a union that has a long history of internal dissension.

That newfound unity, along with the improved economy, has given SAG and AFTRA leaders a platform to insist on change. They have drawn a line in the sand, saying that they’re battling not just for this contract but for the upcoming ones, too.

(Carl DiOrio, Claude Brodesser and Charles Lyons contributed to this report.)

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