Hollywood Braces for Strike in 2001

Monday, October 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In 1988, a ``Moonlighting'' episode cut abruptly to a backstage scene featuring stars Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd — and protesters armed with ``On Strike'' picket signs.

Explaining that there had been a screenwriters' walkout, Willis called on cast member Curtis Armstrong to amuse viewers. Armstrong grudgingly donned a turban to lip-sync to the pop tune ``Wooly Bully.''

The bit was funny; the 22-week strike wasn't. It played havoc with the start of the fall television season and cost the entertainment industry millions.

Now Hollywood is braced for a potentially darker sequel. Both the Writers Guild of America and the unions representing TV and film actors are threatening to go on strike next year, shutting down the industry. A prolonged walkout could delay the start of the fall 2001 television season, affect the number and caliber of new movies, and exact an economic toll on Hollywood-dependent businesses.

Even before negotiations begin, and months before the guild contracts end, pessimism has invaded Hollywood. Some producers are trying to coax extra scripts out of TV writers and studios are fast-tracking films as safeguards.

``I've never seen such rhetoric starting so far in advance,'' said writer-producer Marshall Herskovitz (``Once and Again,'' ``thirtysomething''). ``It tells me the issues are deep and the sides are far apart.''

Several factors could work against a happy ending when the WGA contract, which covers 11,000 writers, expires May 1 and the guild contracts, covering 135,000 actors, expire July 1.

For one, there was the commercial actors strike, which stretched a rancorous six months before a deal was reached last week. It is seen as a bellwether for contract negotiations involving studios, networks and the WGA, Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

``The fact there was a strike lasting that long and involving issues that are similar to issues which we will face has the industry very concerned,'' said Nick Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The alliance, whose 350 members include the major studios and independent production companies, has advised them to plan for a possible strike by taking steps such as hurrying films into production.

``The bottom line is we're planning for the worst and hoping for the best,'' Counter said.

For a movie to be completed before a potential actors' strike in July, production has to get under way by January. As for television, some producers are hoping to stockpile scripts for episodes next fall, while ``Survivor''-type reality shows that can hum along without actors are gaining even more appeal to networks.

John Wells, president of the western branch of the Writers Guild of America and a powerful writer-producer (``ER,'' ``The West Wing,'' ``Third Watch''), said in a Sept. 1 letter to guild members that he has been approached about stockpiling scripts.

``I do not plan to cooperate with a tactic that could be used to undermine guild unity,'' Wells wrote.

Newly aggressive guilds are another factor that could point to a strike. Energized by changes in union leadership and a robust economy, the guilds are ready to push hard for compensation and other demands they believe have gotten short shrift in years past.

``I think it's a culmination of years of dissatisfaction,'' said WGA spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden.

Among key issues for the writers: increases in residual fees for TV shows and movies, and changes in screen credits. The foreign residuals formula, for instance, hasn't changed in 30 years despite a sharp increase in the number of U.S. shows sold overseas.

An episode of a primetime network show that might bring a writer about $17,000 for each broadcast airing would pay in the $5,000 range for unlimited use overseas, according to the guild.

``For a show like 'Nash Bridges,' which is probably airing in 70 countries, $5,000 for all of those markets seems really ridiculous,'' said writer John Wirth, executive producer of the Don Johnson drama.

The WGA has decided to forgo the more informal talks of recent years in favor of full negotiations — an approach last employed, unsuccessfully, in 1988.

For actors, topics looming large include cable TV residuals and compensation for foreign usage.

``Eighty percent of our membership make under $25,000. It's about the little guy, our rank-and-file member,'' SAG president William Daniels said.

Lisa Kudrow, co-star of TV's ``Friends'' and the new movie ``Lucky Numbers,'' said movie deals she is negotiating come with deadlines requiring that she wrap up work before June 1, to avoid derailment by a strike.

``There are actors that are saying, `No I don't think there will be a strike, because then there's no opportunity for work at all. These things can all be worked out,''' Kudrow said. ``I could see it going either way.''

Talks are unlikely to begin before next year.

SAG leader Daniels cautioned against pessimism.

``I think people are using that for their own advantage, quite frankly,'' said Daniels. ``A lot of iffy projects are getting a green light because they've created such talk about a strike. You're gonna see a lot of lousy product as a result.''

Michael Mahern, secretary-treasurer of WGA west and co-chair of the negotiating committee, also contends the picture is brighter than industry buzz would have it.

The guild is going into negotiations with serious muscle, Mahern said. John McLean, the new WGA west executive director and chief negotiator, was a labor relations vice president at CBS, working on ``the other side'' for more than 20 years, Mahern said. Charles Holland, negotiating committee co-chair, is another corporate crossover; he was a vice president of business affairs at 20th Century Fox.

``We have very, very expert and informed leadership and we've been planning for this negotiation for two years,'' Mahern said.

Still, there's reason in Hollywood and beyond to be nervous. Economic losses for the Los Angeles area from the narrower ad industry strike could top $300 million, according to the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a trade group.

``A lot of people don't remember '88, and I do,'' said TV and movie producer Gavin Palone (``Gilmore Girls,'' ``Drop Dead Gorgeous''). ``People don't know how much of a drag it is and how you don't get the audience back that quickly.''

A strike would be a ``tragedy,'' CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem told a recent industry gathering.

``We're still suffering from the last strike in 1988. We have to do everything we can to resolve this.''


On the Net:

Writers Guild of America: http://www.wga.org

Screen Actors Guild: http://www.sag.org