High drama in Hollywood: Strikes ahead?

Pressure is mounting on studios, as writers and actors team up to improve what they say are long-outdated contracts.

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From trendy Spago Restaurant on Sunset Strip to Disneyland and Venice Beach, America's entertainment capital is a town on the edge.

With one major union embroiled in contract talks that could decide the future of thousands of movie and television writers, still more talks are pending in coming weeks for actors. The result - for the thousands who bring you TV shows from "Buffy" to "Friends" and movies from "Chocolat" to "Hannibal" - is a city of polite smiles with clenched teeth.

"Everyone's talking about it, worried about what it means for the industry, what it means for the city and what it means for them, personally," says Susie Duff, a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

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The reason: At stake is from $250 million to $1 billion a month in income and services, as well as the movies-and-TV diet the rest of the US is fed from now through 2002. There is even serious talk that Hollywood could go all but dark this summer, holding serious implications for the state economy - already threatened with electricity shortages.

At issue is money, specifically the formulas by which writers are paid for cable and foreign TV. There are also disputes about what percentages writers deserve from Internet ventures, video, and DVD sales of their work, and about a slew of smaller issues, from creative rights and script reacquisition to how writers are credited.

Current pay formulas have been in place since 1988 and, writers claim, have become more unfair as they become more outdated. Such perceptions are so strong that new union leadership has been voted in specifically to take a more confrontational bargaining stance.

"Frankly, after 13 years of no serious threat of strike and 13 years of residual formulas becoming outdated, it's like here in California on the San Andreas fault," says Michael Mahern, secretary treasurer of Writers Guild of America, West. "The longer you go without having an earthquake, the more dangerous it becomes and the bigger the ultimate earthquake is going to be."

High-stakes negotiations

For now, producing studios are huddled with the WGA - which represents about 12,500 writers coast to coast - to negotiate a new contract that would head off an industrywide stoppage. But the stakes are higher this time around because 135,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild are also entering contract negotiations two months from now over the same issues, increasing the strength of those who oppose producers.

"These things are frequently governed by momentum," says Mr. Mahern. "If one guild makes a deal, it makes it a lot more likely that you're headed toward a deal with the other guild."

More is at stake than the private jets of big-name actors like DeNiro and Redford, or big-time writers like Joe Eszterhas. It is the livelihood of rank-and-file union members like Ms. Duff, a Shakespearean-trained actress who must work half time in public relations to supplement her income from acting in small parts on TV, movies, and commercials.

"If you think that I sweated it out for years, studying acting in dangerous neighborhoods on Manhattan's Lower East Side so I could be the spokeswoman for 'TidyBowl,' think again," says Duff.

The local economy is bracing for what could be a major ripple effect beyond producers, writers, and actors to stunt men and members of other craft guilds - from electricians to carpenters, grips, and costumers.

"The strike is not, as much as it will be portrayed in the media, about rich millionaires wanting more," actor/director Tim Robbins told "Access Hollywood." "It's about the rank and file that are working-class people, with average incomes of about $5,000 per year."

But an extended strike could also sabotage several aspects of the entertainment industry for a long time to come. Because of the long lead time needed to make movies, 18 months on average, movie production could be interrupted for years, with movie houses looking to other countries for product.

Contingency plans

Television could be hit even harder. Many observers believe a vastly different television season could ensue, with many more game shows, "reality shows," reruns, and new faces, as studios bring in foreign actors."We are talking about other reality shows that we can do," says Susanne Daniels, president of entertainment at The WB network. "We are also talking about additional episodes of current series."

Producing studios are already coming up with contingency plans. NBC is ready with 13 episodes of a third "Law and Order" offshoot called "Criminal Intent," and has produced additional episodes of other "Law and Order" shows as well as reality and game shows. Likewise, 20th Century Fox Television is scouting for talent overseas, specifically in the UK.

"As all the networks are, we are preparing for it," says Stu Bloomberg, co-chair of ABC Entertainment Television Group. "We have some benefit in having 'Millionaire' on [our schedule], as well as 'Whose Line Is It, Anyway?' as well as a very vibrant news division that has magazine shows."

Studios are also stockpiling some films or rushing others through production. Among movies that might be delayed are future releases of Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Steven Spielberg, as well as sequels of "Men In Black," "Jumanji," and "Batman."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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