"Here's what's creepy about this war," one striking writer told me last week. "I know who my allies are, but I don't really know my enemy."
The writer has a point. In Hollywood's past labor clashes, the "enemy" -- usually a studio titan -- was front and center. It may have been Louis B. Mayer or Walt Disney or, still later, Lew Wasserman, but it was always clear who loomed at the other end of the bargaining table.
In the present dispute, all of the various corporate leaders have been careful in avoiding center stage. It's clearly a case of the writers versus "Them."
The "Them," to be sure, are the multinational corporations that own Hollywood. Indeed, the strike represents yet another episode of a series of events this year that have reminded Hollywood that it's but a small cog in the global assembly line.
The "congloms," as Variety likes to call them, have dominated the news in '07. The box office triumphs of the summer tentpole movies reflected the successful strategy of the congloms. So did the giant Internet deals involving the MySpaces of the world. So did the dust-up between Viacom and DreamWorks, in which Steven Spielberg's presence in the corporate hierarchy was described as "immaterial." So did the "dismissal" of Tom Cruise and the appointment of corporate marketing apparatchiks to top production posts at one studio after another.
To a major degree, the writers strike itself (and follow-up clashes) are being fueled not by movies or TV, but by the money and power of the congloms and by their potential stranglehold over future technologies.
IS THERE STILL A STAR POWER?
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" signals a trend that leaves Hollywood worried as 2007 rings out: A number of pics touting the biggest stars couldn't find their groove.
Specialty films like "Jesse James," featuring Brad Pitt and directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, joined others starring Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in getting lost at the box office this fall.
"Jesse James" has grossed just $3.8 million domestically and another $7.5 million overseas. It's still playing in 30 or so theaters in the U.S., with Warners hoping for a bump from its awards runs. But with such low box office, the film is in a precarious position.
All the publicity is putting a lot of pressure on Mike Nichols' Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts starrer "Charlie Wilson's War," which unspooled Dec. 21.
The idea that the biggest stars aren't bulletproof is nothing new; it's just never happened to this extent in one year.
And, in the case of "Jesse James," it once again raises the age-old question -- at what point does a studio take back power from the filmmaker?
Making "James" was a long and arduous process. There was a well-publicized tug-of-war between director Andrew Dominik, who caught Hollywood's attention with indie title "Chopper," and Warners over the editing of the film.
Warners' wasn't entirely in sync with the pacing of the movie, or the length (one cut ran more than three hours). Dominik was thinking more like Terence Malick in examining the relationship between the famous outlaw and his eventual assassin, Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck. Warners was in favor of having at least a bit more action.
News December 22, News December 22, News December 22