Hollywood readies for possible strike

Nov. 1 scenario takes on new weight

Networks and studios have started thinking about the unthinkable this week.

The harsh rhetoric surrounding the WGA negotiations plus the guild’s recent move to seek strike authorization have convinced execs that the threat of a Nov. 1 strike may be very real. A possible lockout is also being discussed.

“We are trying to get as much stuff as possible shoved through,” said one studio VP. “It’s as hot as I’ve ever seen it. And whether or not they strike on Nov. 1, we have to act as if they will.”

On the feature side, studios are no longer taking writing pitches and are pretty much limiting themselves to making deals on fully developed packages. Warner Bros. and Universal, for example, have put out the word to agents: Don’t bring in any spec scripts until the situation resolves itself.

“A strike on Nov. 1 is a real option,” WGA West prexy Patric Verrone told Daily Variety on Monday. “What I’m hearing from our screenwriters and showrunners is that they’re being asked to schedule additional table reads, prepare additional scripts and squeeze in more shows, which may be physically impossible in that amount of time.”

On the TV side, the nets are scrambling to figure out how they’ll fill primetime with no new scripted shows and trying to get pilot scripts completed as quickly as possible. There’s also been a rash of series commitments in recent weeks, with nets handing out an unusually large number of six- and 13-episode orders.

Agents admit that the pace of feature dealmaking has stayed hectic in recent weeks — but only for short-term projects. “Making any deals in long-term feature development has become really tough,” one tenpercenter groused.

Producers and execs say available writing jobs have been drying up in recent days. “Unless you’re a triple-A high-end rewriter, you’re not getting an assignment now,” one prominent producer said.

One agent noted that feature animation writing jobs may become a hot area for scribes in coming months since that arena’s not covered by the WGA.

“I am looking more toward open director assignments rather than writing assignments,” a manager noted, pointing out that the DGA is unlikely to go on strike and will probably make a deal by the end of year.

The possibility that a writers strike could start in just a few weeks, with the current contract expiring Oct. 31, had not been prominent on the town’s radar until recently. The prevailing sentiment had been that the WGA would wait for several months — perhaps until summer, when both the SAG and DGA contracts expire — before staging a work stoppage.

The WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers return today to the bargaining table for a seventh day of negotiations in a process that has so far yielded only acrimony and finger-pointing. Verrone said that the guild’s stressing the possibility of a Nov. 1 strike to get the companies to come off their proposal to revamp residuals.

“We’re hoping that possibility will get companies to negotiate seriously,” he added.

But AMPTP president Nick Counter told Daily Variety that the prospect of an early strike has always been part of the planning for studios and nets.

“The companies all have contingencies and will be ready in the event a strike occurs,” Counter added.

One industry insider believes writers will wait to see if any progress is being made before deciding to walk out.

“If there’s absolutely no progress being made, they’ll go out,” the insider said. “If there is some movement, they might give it a few more weeks.”

Endeavor partner Rick Rosen said he remains hopeful that a strike can be averted altogether.

“I’d hate to see this turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, like the Iraq war,” Rosen said. “I’d like to see people trying to engage in some meaningful and constructive dialogue rather than making pronouncements.”

TV types are split as to when a strike would hurt the most, but almost all are now convinced one is coming — and sooner rather than later. Many believe a November walkout could be particularly crippling since it could affect both the current TV season and the next one.

By Nov. 1, nets will have enough episodes of current shows in the can to get them through mid-January. But the February sweeps would be decimated, and new shows would halt production well before they’d filled their initial 13 episode orders.

As a result, an early strike could spell doom for some newer shows struggling in the ratings.

“If Fox has to shut down a show like ‘K-Ville’ in the middle of filming the seventh episode, they might just decide it makes more sense to simply cancel it,” one agent said.

That’s because keeping the “K-Ville” sets in place and its cast together would be costly. If the show were a hit, keeping the skein in a holding pattern would make sense, but given its weak early numbers, Fox might simply decide it makes sense to cut and run.

That decision would have a cost, too. TV shows generally need to produce 13 episodes to earn international coin. If shows such as “K-Ville” — or CBS’ ratings-challenged “Cane” or NBC’s “Bionic Woman” — wrap before they get to 13 segs, they’ll likely end up a total loss for both the network and the studio that produces the show.

A writers’ walkout before Thanksgiving could also cripple pilot season if scribes stay out for several months. While nets have purchased the bulk of their pilot scripts by now, they’ve seen only a few completed drafts. Most pilot scripts don’t come in until late November or early December. An early strike would put pilot season on hold.

There are some observers, however, who think a January strike might make more strategic sense. The TV season would still be hurt, with original episodes of shows running out by late February. Pilot season would still be affected, since nets might be reluctant to lense $4 million pilot segs without scribes available to do rewrites — especially for comedies.

If scribes wait until January, they can also claim to have gone the extra mile on negotiations by working without a deal for two months. On the other hand, almost all nets have made early pilot commitments to at least two or three projects, some of which are expected to lense in December.

So a November strike could put a crimp in nets’ plans to get a jump on development. To some, waiting until the end of June — when SAG and the DGA see their contracts expire — has become a less likely option.

“The writers have realized if they do that, they’re just letting the studios fill their pipelines,” one agent said. “They know that if they want to have an impact, they go out now.”

Fox reality prexy Mike Darnell said a few months ago that he’d never been so busy. Two cycles of the red-hot “Hell’s Kitchen” are in the works, while the net held back the buzzworthy “When Women Rule the World” for a later date. And, of course, “American Idol” wouldn’t be affected by a strike.

CBS alternative chief Ghen Maynard is said to have two dozen concepts in the works for CBS and sister net the CW. Emmy magnet “The Amazing Race” is also on the shelf.

Over at NBC, new chief Ben Silverman has been greenlighting project after project, while shows that pre-date his arrival — the provocative “Baby Borrowers,” for example — are ready whenever he needs them. He’s also said he’s been talking to international broadcasters about snapping up shows already produced for English-speaking markets such as Canada and Blighty.

ABC’s got a high-profile skein from Oprah Winfrey called “The Big Give,” as well as a spinoff of “Dancing With the Stars.”

Newsmags like “20/20” and “48 Hours” are also gearing up to add nights if needed. And with gameshows proving to be very popular lately –especially as short-term plays — don’t be surprised if quizzers multiply quickly.

One daypart that would be immediately crippled by a strike is latenight. Both Johnny Carson’s and David Letterman’s shows went dark for a couple months during the last big WGA strike in 1988, and it’s almost certain the current batch of talking heads would sign off for at least a few weeks if there’s a walkout.

While the WGA might ultimately grant the talkers a waiver, nets would instantly lose millions in ad revenue.

One writer too young to remember the last strike said he’s trying to proceed as normal even though he knows it’s not.

“We’re just going ahead with the show,” he said. “Everyone’s a little bit in the dark about what’s going to happen. I think everyone is finally realizing this could be real, and everyone’s freaked out about what it means.”