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TheStar.com | entertainment | Hollywood braces for writers' strike
Hollywood braces for writers' strike

What a strike would mean for TV? Will Broadway go dark too?The crux of the matter

The big issues writers are fighting for are increased residual payments for DVD sales and some kind of revenue sharing for non-conventional distribution of TV and movies in new media online, cellphones, etc. The studios argue DVD sales are the only things offsetting their growing losses, and that new media remains a money-loser, used only for promotional purposes.

The 1988 writers' strike revisited

For many, the looming impasse between writers in Hollywood and the studios they work for has eerie echoes of the last time the writers walked off the job in 1988. For 22 weeks, the television business stumbled forward with no new material, resorting to reruns and some unfortunate experiments (David Letterman gamely tried writing his own top 10 lists on Late Night, at least for a while).

When it was all over, the industry suffered a half-billion dollars in lost revenue, and a priceless amount of viewer loyalty: Some shows that had been massive hits returned to the air only to find their audiences gone and cancellation looming Moonlighting, for one, which never recovered and dwindled away. (In its final pre-strike episode, the entire writing staff appeared carrying "On Strike" signs; stars Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd brought in Curtis Armstrong to sing "Wooly Bully" as their pre-strike farewell).

Despite valiant attempts, Johnny Carson and Letterman went dark as well. As Letterman put it: "We have nothing to do, the writers aren't here," he said. "So a guy's gonna come in and shave me. Fifty-five minutes, ladies and gentlemen! Fifty-five minutes to go!"

The same fears are palpable this time around, namely for such shows as Lost, who have kept audiences waiting nine months between seasons.

But these are just the conventional problems. Compounding them now is a host of other diversions: Between DVDs, iPods, hundreds of foreign and specialty channels and reality shows, among others, viewer loyalty is more slippery than it's ever been not good for an industry clinging desperately to what it has left.

- Murray WhyteTV and movie screens could fade to black as writers ponder whether to hit the picket lines. What this means to the industry ... and to you

Oct 27, 2007 04:30 AM
Murray Whyte
entertainment reporter

Ask anyone in the business of playing host to the once-steady stream of American film and TV productions here, and they'll tell you that things aren't what they were.

The dollar's steady climb, provinces, states and countries around the globe chasing U.S. production dollars with increasingly aggressive incentive programs, and the city's now-glaring lack of purpose-built sound stages (the kind big-budget blockbusters demand) have withered the local production industry to a shell of its once-robust self.

Wait. It gets worse.

Ken Ferguson, the head of Toronto Film Studios, went to Los Angeles last week. Meeting with various studio heads, Ferguson looked for a take on the looming threat of a writers' strike, which could bring production everywhere the U.S.-based industry touches to a standstill.

"It was a little disturbing to see the blank looks staring back," Ferguson recalled recently.

For a clarifying view, his timing was less than perfect: Last week, the Writers Guild of America amped up the rhetoric in its months-long contract dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents all major studios and television networks.

Earlier this month, the union voted, more than 90 per cent, in favour of a strike after their current agreement expires Oct. 31, though most took it as posturing. With the Screen Actors Guild's and Directors Guild's contracts expiring in June, it was reasonable to think the Writers Guild would delay their own strike until then.

Last week, they said, not so. Hence the blank stares.

"I think it really took them by surprise," Ferguson said.

Short term, this is not good.

"The phones have gone quiet here," Ferguson said. "When we call to ask, they say they have to wait and see."

Long term? For you, the viewer, small scale disaster: The very real possibility of having to wait again to see how Lost ends.

For the industry? Potentially much worse. In the public profile-driven world of Hollywood, writers dwell in shadows while actors, directors and even producers absorb the klieg light glare. Without them, though, the lights go dark. No script, no shooting. And that's precisely what Hollywood could be facing next Thursday.

Not that they haven't been preparing for it. "What everyone has to understand here is that the studios were preparing for this at the beginning of the year, if not sooner," says Ken Dhaliwal, an entertainment lawyer at Heenan-Blaikie, a Toronto-based firm. Dhaliwal represents several major American studios as clients.

The preparation has been an artificial production boost as studios rush to complete projects before the strike occurs, stockpiling TV episodes and movies in case of an impasse.

The Ontario Media Development Corporation, which tracks production in the city and province, confirms high activity.

"We're definitely busy," said George McNeillie, the OMDC's manager of communications, though it was his sense it was not much more so than the previous year.

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents some 1,500 support workers in the film industry, is overloaded with work, according to David Baer, the president of the agency's theatrical arm. "They're going completely nuts, working full out at least for now," he says.

But it's artificial, Dhaliwal says.

"There's been a late-year surge," he says. "We're probably in a bit of a bubble things being forced into production.

"But it's a short-term boost and then, if it happens a dead zone."

Which, of course, is what nobody wants actors, writers and studios alike. So why can't they all just get along? Some argue being at odds is a natural state for writers and studios ("It's in our DNA" said one writer who asked not to be named).

In the end, it comes down to the baseline Hollywood ethic: Money.

During the last Hollywood writers' strike in 1988, a five-month impasse over residuals payment for shows and films that aired in perpetuity nobody won. Writers were out of work for half a year; production support workers caterers, gaffers, crew were, too; networks had to push their fall schedules back to mid-winter; viewership dropped by 10 per cent. Enter a fragmented media universe of cable TV; some say it never recovered.

This time around, it's the same song with a different tune. Writers (and actors, hence their pending strike) say studios have cut them out of revenues from various new kinds of distribution DVDs, and, specifically, online distribution. They want, they say, their fair share.

The problem: No-one knows what "fair" is. With online distribution in particular yet to become a profit centre, the two sides are haggling over potential profit, not profit itself. The web, studios say, is a promotional tool that costs money, not makes it. But that won't be the case forever, the writers say.

"Writers and actors see their work online every day why not get paid for it?" Dhaliwal says. "That's the problem no one has ever come up with a business strategy for new media, and no one wants to give up the piece that could, in the end, be the big winner."

In Canada earlier this year, ACTRA, the union that represents Canadian actors, went on strike for four months over the multimedia issue. They ratified a new contract in April that, for the first time, included benefits for new media.

It remains the only one of its kind, and now written into the contract of a major entertainment industry union, the precedent for new media benefits is set. The question is no longer whether or not to include it, but how?

"There's been a lot of hype" about the multimedia issue, says Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada, which has close ties with its American counterpart. "But it's not the only issue," she says, citing the row over DVD residuals, which the writers claim to be laughably low.

Parker will be in Los Angeles next week observing as negotiations go into the 11th hour (the unions are affiliated, but not joined; Canadian guild members will still be able to work on Canadian shows during an American Guild strike, but U.S.-based writers will be encouraged not to cross the border).

She describes the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers's offerings they withdrew their demand to rollback residuals, framing it as a significant concession as "not really very serious negotiations for a multi-billion dollar industry."

(For their part, the Alliance suggests that Guild demands would be financially crippling for them. The Guild "continue(s) to pursue numerous financial proposals that would result in astronomical increases in our costs," said Alliance president Nick Counter in a statement this week).

Earlier this week, six days of negotiation produced no results, prompting Counter to urge onlookers to not "confuse process with progress." But Parker has heard the tough talk before.

"I can't remember a single negotiation when the studios didn't talk tough," she said. "We've seen this all before. It's not time to panic yet."



Source: http://www.thestar.com/article/270542
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