WRITER STRIKE REALITY SETS IN
While the networks have been repeating the mantra that "screens will not go black," it wonít take long for TV viewers to see the impact of a Writers Guild of America strike.
The canaries in TVís creative coal mine are latenight hosts such as David Letterman and Jay Leno, whose monologues and sketches are dependent on union writers. If history is any guide, both shows will almost instantly go dark, as would "Saturday Night Live." Comedy Centralís latenight stalwarts "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" are also guild-repped under a deal inked earlier this year.
Primetime comedy and drama series will feel the pinch immediately, though the on-air effect will be delayed at least a few weeks for most shows as they air completed segs. Cruelest blows will hit the frosh crop of shows that are just starting to get a toehold with viewers, including ABCís "Private Practice," "Pushing Daisies" and "Samantha Who" and CBSí "The Big Bang Theory."
In general, most nets will have four or five filmed episodes of most of their shows on hand as of Nov. 1. In addition, most shows have anywhere from one to five scripts that have been written but not yet shot.
"A lot depends on whether we can shoot these other episodes," one insider said.
Even if actors agree to film those episodes, scribes wonít be available to do rewrites or make changes based on network notes.
Most likely, original episodes will start disappearing by early December or January.
Itís no mystery what will fill the timeslots now occupied by WGA-repped skeins; Net execs say theyíre just not exactly sure how theyíll sked all of the reality and news programs theyíve been bulking up on during the past year.
"Do we have a schedule, per se? No," said one webhead. "Do we have a lot of options? Yes."
Of all the webs, Fox is sitting pretty with "American Idol" slated to return for the second half of the season, ensuring at least one net will have the lights fully turned on in the event of a work stoppage. CBS last week cued up a new season of "The Amazing Race," to plug the Sunday-night hole left by the fast fade of "Viva Laughlin."
Suits said they canít make final calls on how to spread out their programming resources until a strike is actually called. Whatís more, scenarios will change depending on whether the work stoppage looks to be a short-lived event or a months-long ordeal.
With sweeps far less important than they used to be, some networks could air a few repeats of shows in November to keep a reservoir of originals until late January or February.
As for what viewers will see, "The most likely outcome is more news and more reality," said NBC U entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman.
Another exec said network TV skeds would start looking like the summer, with more reality shows, extra newsmags and some repeats. There will also be originals, though for how long remains unclear.
INDIES SEE EDGE IN POSSIBLE STRIKE
Although strike anxiety is clouding Hollywood's outlook, the New York film business views the labor mess as a potential silver lining.
Ongoing guild angst and a protracted work stoppage could wind up being a counterintuitive boon to many indie companies, say prominent players. It may curtail the increasing production output of studio arms such as Focus, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage and Sony Pictures Classics. Not surprisingly, execs at those companies are feeling the most stressed.
One reason others are more sanguine is the belief that guild waivers could be obtained that would allow for shooting to continue, depending on such factors as where the shoot occurs and whether a guild signatory is onboard to distribute.
More than that, there are competitive advantages in a strike scenario to being independent and, by definition, dedicated to working the fringes to discover new voices.
"I predict by the spring that a lot of bankable actors will become available, names who really drive foreign sales and allow independently financed films to flourish," said Andrew Hurwitz, a veteran sales rep and partner at Gotham law firm Schreck, Rose & Dapello. "There are going to be a lot of those films mobilizing when studios are not in a place to move ahead."
Andrew Herwitz of the Film Sales Co., a longtime Miramax exec who now reps indie pics, was doubtful that a strike would last long enough to affect things like the festival markets.
While the market for finished films has been wobbly in recent years, the presence of new buyers like Overture and Summit has propped up prices. "There is no shortage of completed films," he said. "While a strike is awful for morale and for the business as a whole, the impact for a lot of us is minimal, at least at this point."
Picturehouse topper Bob Berney said the 40% of his business that acquisitions currently comprises could grow in a strike environment. "But then the worry is that you just go into markets and stock up and people will be buying stuff that they don't really want."
That is certainly the outlook of Gothamites heading to Santa Monica for AFM, but even more of a looming presence is Sundance. The mere mention of the word in combination with the strike is what elicits shudders from otherwise hardened New Yorkers.
"Sundance without a strike would be crazy," said Tom Quinn, senior VP at Magnolia Pictures. "But if there is a strike you could definitely see a frenzied marketplace with a lot of pre-buys or just people willing to spend outrageous sums for movies that might not be any good. Because if you can't fill your slate with enough production titles, you've got to go out and get finished films."
STUDIOS PREP BACK UP PLAN
The studios have spent the better part of the last year trying to protect themselves from possible strike effects.
There are as many as 50 studio movies ready to go into production now if writers walk, and most of the majors have managed to muster together at least five pictures with scripts and plots strong enough to overcome the potential lack of a WGA member on set to execute revisions.
And that doesn't include films being made by studio specialty arms or projects funded by the likes of Media Rights Capital, which will spend $250 million to finance eight films that include the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy "Bruno," Ricky Gervais comedy "This Side of the Truth," Robert Rodriguez-directed "Shorts," and the Richard Kelly-directed thriller "The Box" with Cameron Diaz. Only "Bruno" has a distribution deal, made at Universal prior to the release of "Borat."
Studios say they have ready many scripts that could be slotted for production instantly if the right star becomes available. Tom Cruise, for instance, has been eyeing the Terry George-directed "Edwin A. Salt" at Columbia and the Todd Phillips-directed comedy "Men" at Warners, but he hasn't landed on a pre-strike film. If he does, someone will have a big picture.
Unlike in television, which is far more exposed, the natural cycle of making movies means studios have had ample time to prepare for a walkout, whether by writers, whose contract expires at midnight, or actors, whose contract is up next summer.
"For now, it's a television strike, not a movie strike. Everybody has done their films for 2008 and part of 2009. It would need a very long strike, six or seven months, to have an impact," said one veteran industry player.
If there's a strike, studios also can get out of producing deals under the force majeure clause included in almost all such pacts. Agencies, too, can shed agents under force majeure. Companies used that "out" plenty during the writers strike in 1988.
For the most part, most studio 2008 slates aren't an issue, since those movies are either done or safely along in the process, save for some of the late-year titles. The threat of a strike has meant that they are going into production sooner than they normally would have with 2009 films, or pics slated for release toward the end of 2008.
"We strongly hope (a strike) doesn't happen, but most feature companies have been preparing for over a year and are fully ready. And if a long strike eventually led to a reduction of the number of films made, that might be a good thing anyway," a studio source said.