Actors And Writers Are Ready To Strike

By Christian
March 18, 2001 - 3:13 PM

With the prospect of a slower economy and falling advertising rates already looming on the horizon, the near future already wasn't looking too brightly for the entertainment industry. Some analysts are predicting media companies will really start hurting over the coming year, as it grows ever more likely Hollywood writers and actors will go on strike.

Contract negotations between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) collapsed two weeks ago (story), and the guild has said it probably won't re-open talks until early April, less than a month before the current contract of the writers expires. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) hasn't even begun negotiations yet, and on Friday indicated it likely won't start anytime soon.

"We are likely to defer to the WGA at this point, if only because our contract expiration is not until June 30," SAG spokesman Greg Krizman told Variety. SAG had earlier said that it could be ready for talks as soon as this month, but warned that they could be delayed if the studios did not deliver crucial data on actors' residuals, required by the SAG to draw up its contract proposal. According to Variety's sources, however, the main reason for the delay is a belief that by setting the contract talks nearer to the expiration of the actors' contract, the SAG will have more bargaining power with the AMPTP - especially if at the same time Hollywood writers would already be on strike.

Those writers, meanwhile, are displaying a great willingness to actually go on strike. "If we had to have a strike vote, I'm sure it would have been a 90 percent-plus vote," Writers Guild negotiator Michael Mahern said after attending a Guild meeting that was only open to members. After contract talks ended, the WGA organised a series of town hall meetings to educate its 11,500 members about the talks, and so far most members seem to support the Guild's demands for higher residuals and more creative rights.

The Guild's resolve is strengthened by the recent success of other strikes in the entertainment industry, such as last year's long strike by commercial actors. "I do think the union is proceeding from a position of strength," said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. "There's been a renewed sense of activism within the entertainment industry unions."

Some analysts are also sensing this. Speaking to Variety, entertainment analyst Scott Davis at First Union Securities figured there is only a 25% chance there won't be a strike, and a 50% chance there will be a strike lasting less than three months. "After some of the more militant members of the guilds get their moment in the spotlight, it seems likely that cooler heads would prevail and a strike would not last more than a couple of months," he said Thursday. Finally, he believed there was a 25% chance of a strike lasting longer than 90 days, which he said would especially hit television networks and theater chains very hard.

In addition, some observers wonder whether the timing for a strike is really right, with the economy as a whole already slowing down. "I find the timing curious, given the economic environment, to entertain the notion of going on strike when alternatives of making money are harder to come by," said analyst Gordon Hodge. "Which leads me to think the studios have some advantage in the game of chicken that's being played."

This is one theory that is also the subject of a new article by Inside's Michael Cieply, talking about the Tall Guy Metaphor. "You picture a bunch of tall guys marching a bunch of short guys across a stream," Cieply wrote. "The tall guys wade in up to their noses. The short guys all drown."

This metaphor holds true for the entertainment industry, where big studios such as Paramount or Disney would be able to survive a strike, thanks due to the large corporations they're part of and their massive back catalogues, but where smaller studios such as Artisan or Dreamworks would find it much harder to survive. It is no surprise, therefore, that Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg has been trying hard to make peace with the writers. However, due to a "unanimity rule" adhered to by the AMPTP, any action Katzenberg undertakes would have to be supported by the other studios.

Meanwhile, television networks are continuing their efforts to create a strike-proof Fall schedule. CBS president Leslie Moonves told Variety that he's "hopeful, even semi-optimistic" there won't be a strike, but if there will, his network is "very prepared". The network has greenlit another season of 'Big Brother' for this Summer, but it could be pushed back to the Fall, when 'Survivor III' will also already air. In addition, the network has a "huge inventory" of original movies and theatricals it could air, and would be able to expand its news programming. "We have the news, we have the reality, we have the movies of the week and miniseries, which is a fail-safe plan. We'll have a prepared schedule ready to go into the upfront with," Moonves said.

On the science-fiction front, Rick Berman recently indicated that Paramount will try to at least have the two-hour pilot episode of the new Star Trek series ready before the strikes. Presumably, this pilot could then already air as Movie of the Week on UPN, the network where Series V itself will also air.

'Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda' is even better prepared for the strikes, as Tribune Entertainment began shooting the show's second season several months earlier than originally planned (story). According to Andromeda co-producer Ethlie Ann Vare, there will "will definitely be new Andromeda episodes until at least 2002... by which time any possible strikes will surely be settled."

For the moment, however, the strikes are far from settled. Here at TrekToday, we will of course be keeping you informed about any progress made by the writers and actors in their dealings with the studios.

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