Biz feels labor pains

Studios & agencies gird for worst with guilds in turmoil

Studios and talent agencies are becoming increasingly alarmed at the upheaval within Hollywood actors and writers guilds.

With the unions due at the bargaining table this spring, many see harbingers of the de facto writers and actors strike of 2001 that threw a massive wrench into the production machinery and roiled development waters for nearly a year.

The Writers Guild of America West is facing a constitutional challenge and questions over the legitimacy of its new president, appointed two weeks ago when the incumbent resigned over eligibility questions. In addition, a large percentage of the membership is backing a hard-line stance on DVD issues. Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild’s notoriously unpredictable membership remains a wild card.

With the potential for labor strife clearly increased, talent agencies are shoring up as many jobs as possible for writer clients in the near term. Studios are similarly concerned. Warner Bros. is said to be loath to put any movie into production after April 1 for fear of being caught in the middle of labor unrest.

“Everybody has to be prepared,” said one Sony production executive. “You need to start thinking strategically about what movies you’re going to release and when.”

A high-level Paramount exec concurred: “We are very nervous.”

While the current anxiety is nowhere near the level of the 2001 situation, top agents say discussion of preparations for a strike is “picking up more and more” and becoming the topic of conversation at weekly lit meetings. Many of these agents are hastening to put as many writer clients to work as possible before the May 2 expiration of the writer’s contract and the June 30 deadline for SAG’s contract.

“There is a growing awareness of the need to put people to work now, more so than ever before,” said one top literary agent at a Big Five talent agency. “There’s a real fear that this could — because the movie business is contracting — become like the supermarket strike: One that’s been on so long that it becomes a sort of, ‘who cares?’ even as people lose their homes and go broke. We are praying to God there is no strike.”

And even though SAG and AFTRA leaders have taken a low-key non-confrontational approach to negotiations this year, Hollywood execs remain wary of the actors unions because of their potential to shut down businesss, the ongoing volatility of SAG’s membership and memories of 2001 when studios ramped up production out of fear of strikes by actors and writers. “You can stockpile scripts, but you can’t stockpile actors,” one noted.

How did matters become so delicate so quickly?

Top writers and agents say currently unrebutted allegations about current WGA prexy Charles Holland — that he claimed to have played football in college when the college says it has no records of that, and that he misrepresented his role in the armed forces — are enough to raise serious doubts about his credibility to lead negotiations at the bargaining table.

As one agency topper put it, “His credibility is totally gone.”

That controversy was a factor in the decision by SAG’s top officials to offer producers the option of going first rather than letting a WGA that is facing growing disarray set the framework of the contract negotiations. In recent negotiations, the WGA has gone first, establishing a framework for a settlement with producers, rather than the other way around.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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