Hollywood cools after SAG deadline

Industry not in WGA frenzy despite uncertainty

Where’s the panic?

One day after the expiration of the Screen Actors Guild’s film and primetime TV contract, the biz is not gripped by the same level of angst experienced at the comparable moment during the Writers Guild of America’s negotiations with the majors, just prior to the Nov. 5 start of the scribes’ 100-day strike.

There’s a ubiquitous sense among studio and network execs, talent reps and multihyphenates that SAG does not have the bedrock of support among its members to call for a work stoppage.

SAG’s tactical decision to hinge its next move on the results of the ratification vote for AFTRA’s contract, which SAG has blasted as woefully insufficient, has convinced many in the biz that SAG has backed itself into a corner.

Thus the passage of the June 30 contract expiration date was anticlimactic, with all eyes now on SAG to see what it will do after the results of the AFTRA ratification vote are announced Tuesday.

“The sentiment is that people who are working don’t want to go out. If there hadn’t been a writers strike, there might be more support for (a SAG strike),” said a veteran talent rep who specializes in TV thesps. “Right now, there’s too many people who are just desperate to get something going.”

Indeed, while there’s great skepticism about SAG’s ability to rally actors for a full-blown work stoppage, there’s no question the town is enduring the labor pains of a de facto strike because of the uncertainty.

The toll on production activity has been much heavier on the film side than in TV this time around (last fall, by contrast, the scribe strike shuttered TV production almost overnight, while films with completed scripts were able to continue). Lensing on studio pics has ground to a halt in recent weeks, after a big ramp-up earlier in the year, in anticipation of the June 30 contract expiration.

Studio movies now in production include “Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins,” “Transformers 2,” Eddie Murphy starrer “A Thousand Words” and Ron Howard’s “Angels & Demons.”

Production skeds on each of those pics were carefully structured to complete significant portions before June 30 — on “Angels & Demons,” that meant the location work done in Rome — to allow for a smooth shutdown if necessary, with visual effects work and editing to be done during the hiatus.

On “Terminator Salvation,” the shoot was compartmentalized to focus first on exterior scenes, leaving mostly soundstage work to be completed. The deal producers have with the cast and crew is that paychecks stop in the event of a strike, but nobody gets force majeured, and each person gets a plane ticket home from the location site in Albuquerque with the agreement that they’ll all return within 48 hours of a SAG settlement.

A few high-profile studio projects are currently skedded to start this month — including Sony’s Roland Emmerich actioner “2012” and Disney’s vidgame adaptation “Prince of Persia” — but only a few. The lack of disruption on the indie side is helping to soften some of the blow, as SAG has issued more than 350 waivers to nonstudio films that will allow those pics to proceed even if there’s a strike.

In TV, however, Warner Bros. TV, 20th Century Fox TV, ABC Studios and others still recovering from the WGA strike-induced disruptions to the traditional series and pilot production cycle are sticking with plans to power through the summer, betting that there won’t be a walkout.

Production execs say they’d rather run the risk of having to eat shutdown costs later in order to get as much work done as possible before the start of the 2008-09 season in September. There’s also a cushion provided by the fact that SAG has yet to take a strike authorization vote, a process that would take at least two weeks to complete and require 75% approval of those voting.

Beyond the technicalities, even some WGA members who are now back at work — and inclined to be sympathetic to SAG’s position — say they don’t sense the same kind of solidarity among their casts as existed in the fall among writers.

The threat of a thesp work stoppage “is not even in my thought process right now at all,” said a prominent sitcom showrunner. “There’s just a general feeling that it’s not going to happen.”

More than a dozen primetime dramas are lensing now, including 20th’s “Prison Break” and “24,” or skedded to start in the next two weeks. Warner Bros. TV has several shows starting up next week, including frosh dramas “Fringe” and “Surviving the Filthy Rich,” as well as returning skeins “Smallville” and “Supernatural.” WB’s “Chuck,” “Pushing Daisies” and “Gossip Girl” have been in production for weeks and are skedded to continue through this month. ABC Studios has had a number of shows humming along during the past two months: “Private Practice,” “Criminal Minds,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Army Wives” and “Ghost Whisperer.”

On the comedy side, scribes have been back at work on most fall shows for at least two weeks, but the first table reads and shoots with thesps won’t come until early- to mid-August.

Network execs also say there’s very little concern about actors not turning out for this month’s summer Television Critics Assn. press tour, running July 8-22 at the Beverly Hilton. (The January winter edition of TCA was scuttled by the WGA strike).

One net rep said there was a little hesitation about a month ago when it came time to sign contracts with the hotel for facilities and rooms, but execs did the math on the timing of the SAG contract expiration and the AFTRA ratification vote and figured there was only a small chance that actors would be pounding the picket lines by the time TCA arrived.

The harsh reality that Big Four nets’ primetime perf took a beating and barely recovered even after shows resumed in the spring seems to be weighing heavily on talent this summer, the net exec said.

“Everybody knows we need this season to work,” the exec said, adding that thesps seem more cooperative than usual with regard to requests for extra efforts in service of marketing and promotion.

That the majors have so much invested, at least in TV, in going forward in a business-as-usual manner, despite the lack of a current SAG contract, has only reinforced the certainty in town that the majors are highly unlikely to go on the offensive and lock the actors out any time soon.

If SAG does not call for a strike authorization vote but seeks to continue negotiations with AMPTP after the AFTRA vote results are announced next week, the studios may even be inclined to brave skedding start dates for a few more tentpole features.

“The studios could easily take the position that ‘we’re tired of waiting. We want to make our movies. So (actors) who want to work can do so without a contract, and without any union security, until your union gets its act together,’ ” said a seasoned studio exec.

Perhaps the most telling bellwether of the health of the Hollywood economy at any given time is found inside the town’s tenpercenteries. Even the largest of the agencies have been implementing austerity programs for nearly a year in anticipation of turmoil in the writers and actors contract negotiations.

While many agencies trimmed staff and client rosters during the WGA strike, for now, insiders at the Big Five — CAA, WMA, ICM, Endeavor and UTA — say they aren’t looking at steep cuts … yet. Film lit agents are taking solace in the fact that scripts are still selling, and TV and indie pics are keeping people employed for now.

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