Post houses brace for strike

Production units prepare for hit

A WGA strike could have a fast and severe effect on post-production houses, especially those that get the bulk of their work from television.

“We’ll be biting the bullet and downsizing, trying to keep everyone we can employed, but this strike will affect more than writers and producers and production-side people,” said Post Group CEO Stephen Buchsbaum, expressing a viewpoint in sync with much of the industry’s post-production community.

Dailies, a significant portion of business for Post Group and other companies, would stop with shooting. “Production will stop on at least two of our (episodic dramas),” he said. “The other two will have two shows written and greenlit.”

Robert Deschaine of Todd AO, a former president of the Cinema Audio Society, concurred. “If (a strike) happened tomorrow, we’ve got about another month’s work to air, shows that are in the can.”

For TV post, work would continue through the pipeline one or two months after production stops. There’s a certain amount of down time built into November-December schedules — typically a week at Thanksgiving and two weeks at Christmas — so that could delay the impact yet further. But by early January, most work would be done and post houses would be squeezed.

“Then there’ll be a ripple effect, because then everybody has to get back in production,” Deschaine said.

The impact would be deepened should the nets begin canceling shows or reducing their orders. “We can’t support the staff we have now with a shortened season,” Buchsbaum said.

The nets may decide to fill the gap with reality programming, but Deschaine said, “That’s a disaster because a lot of the reality shows are non-union, so we (Todd AO) don’t do any reality shows.”

The Post Group does some work on unscripted, but Buchsbaum said those shows are edited inhouse at the production companies, leaving only minor color correction and sound work to be done by outside vendors. In short, reality TV may be good for nets but it’s very bad for post houses.

The situation for feature films is less clear.

Marc Sadeghi of visual effects house the Orphanage said, “(A strike) will trickle and hit us at some point, but it won’t hit us as quickly as television folks.”

The Orphanage is booked on the feature side through the end of 2008. Other major visual effects houses are also working far in advance of release dates.

Jules Roman, prexy of Bay Area vfx house Tippett Studio, said if there aren’t scripts moving forward by the second quarter of 2008, there will be trouble ahead.

“That’s when the next round of bidding (on major films) would normally start.”

“I don’t know how you plan for it, I really don’t. We’re used to expanding and contracting but you don’t want to contract so far that you can’t keep the doors open.”

Tippett is almost exclusively a feature film company. The Orphanage, by contrast, has feature film vfx, TV and film animation and commercials.

Should a lull eventually hit feature vfx, diversification will be the key, Sadeghi said.

“It’s a different animal altogether, the commercial world, but we’ve been grooming this animal for many years,” he said.

Other diversified shops include Sony Imageworks, which makes animated films, and Digital Domain, which has a major commercial operation.

Sadeghi said the majors seem to be staggering their own pipelines and he hasn’t seen what would be a major danger sign: a sudden surge of work up for bid.

“That would mean the studios are preparing for a lull and pushing a lot of work through at once, and that would mean there’s going to be a time when they’re not doing a lot of work, or any work. Usually it’s a steady flow.”

A writers strike may benefit one tiny slice of the post-production community. Picture editors with writing experience are more in demand when reality TV and documentaries are hot. Freelance editor Stephanie Hubbard told Daily Variety that because of reality programming, “there’s a slight advantage for editors who can write. It will put that gray area of editors who also write more in the spotlight.”

In the end, though, it’s not this strike that really puts fear in the hearts of the post community.

“The big one is going to happen when SAG strikes,” said James Hardy, CEO of HTV Illuminate. “That’s going to be the real blow to everybody, not just us. The dry cleaners, the restaurants. … This is just a small little tremor before the big one.”