Hollywood asks: Who’s minding the store?

MEMO TO: Hollywood’s Power Players

FROM: Peter Bart

I don’t want to interrupt anyone’s summer reverie, but I have an urgent question to put to you: Have any of you happened to notice that your industry is hurtling down the road to limbo land?

I am referring, of course, to the fact that actors and writers seem set to shut down Hollywood next year, with the directors not far behind.

Executives responsible for TV and film production already are scrambling to fill the pipelines before the Apocalypse. And they can’t quite figure out why their bosses are dozing.

That in itself underscores why this crisis differs from any that has gone before. The entire structure of show business has radically changed since the last labor traumas a generation ago.

The guilds and unions aren’t bargaining with humble studios and networks. They’re confronting global leviathans like Vivendi or Time Warner AOL — entities that are still in the process of defining their own structures and objectives.

THAT’S WHERE YOU COME IN, guys. Someone has to get the message to the lofty reaches of these mega-companies. It’s not a question of crying “wolf,” but rather of crying “help!”

The fact that we’re in this situation to begin with points up a key potential weakness of multinational corporations. Their interests are so vast, their scenarios so conflicting, that the potential shutting down of Hollywood may actually fall below the radar until the point of no return.

In years gone by, as you may recall, there was a fellow named Lew Wasserman who dealt with matters like this. Old Lew, the Medici of MCA, would corral his rival company heads and hammer out a modus vivendi with the unions. Lew was never shy about “persuading” dissidents to fall into line.

Someone would do well to visit Lew and solicit his advice. You can find him most days around noon, munching tuna in the far reaches of the Universal commissary, and he still spins some great war stories about Old Hollywood.

I suspect Lew would be impatient with the antagonistic, hard-line rhetoric of present-day studio negotiators, which seems intended to incite labor wars rather than ameliorate them.

The issues, to be sure, already are clouded by technological change. How will artists be compensated when their work is disseminated on the Internet? What constitutes proper payment when work appears overseas?

The process of eliciting the basic data on these issues itself is a difficult exercise. The so-called “residuals commission,” which represents the guilds, hopes to gain initial access to worldwide data within the next few weeks.

One reason the guilds are displaying a streak of paranoia is that they, too, realize the world has changed. Eight companies control 94% of primetime television. There are far fewer entities to compete for the talents of their artists.

Some cool heads exist in Hollywood, of course. A quiet effort is being made to engage the town’s more “reasonable” players — veterans like Barry Meyer of Warners or Mel Harris of Sony.

Even as this takes place, however, there’s an over-riding concern about the corporate titans, if and when they, too, become involved.

NO ONE WOULD EVER ACCUSE Rupert Murdoch of exhibiting empathy toward guilds or unions, for example. Is his company so vast that he can endure a strike rather than bend to labor demands? Disney, too, has traditionally been hard-nosed. Would Viacom or Time Warner AOL be peacemakers?

There are many in town who doubt it. Indeed, a certain fatalism has infiltrated the community which does not augur well for Hollywood’s future. The cost of a strike, or series of strikes, would be devastating, affecting not only those engaged directly in movies and TV — some 250,000 at last count — but also those in the myriad support mechanisms of the industry.

Even now the frenzy is growing as the town’s networks and studios try to mobilize enough product prior to D-Day. Some agents already are lifting their demands for key talent in response to this seller’s market, noting that they, too, might be out of business before long.

Hence the wake-up call, guys. It’s time to rattle some cages, to get the hierarchs to pay attention. After all, the job you save may be your own.

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