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Quiet on the Set: Actors and Writers Strike

How would theaters and broadcasters handle the possible Hollywood shutdown?

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You’ll feel it first in TV. Do you like those reality shows? No, really like those reality shows? Starting in fall 2001 that may be all you’ll see, along with newsmagazines, reruns, and films that have been edited for television.

For movies, the tribulation will come later. Things will be normal through the summer and fall of next year. Quiet even. Then, slowly, the blockbusters will dry up. A plague of rereleases may hit the multiplex. Next, a swarm of indies and foreign films. And while the sun won’t become as sackcloth or the moon become as blood, by spring 2002 we could be talking about the lost Jim Varney King Lear and a remake of The Amazing Colossal Man starring hand puppets.

It’s the subject currently consuming all of Hollywood: impending walkouts by writers and actors. Barring an increasingly unlikely deus ex machina, on May 2 of next year every member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) will probably go on strike. That means no new Friends, no new ER, no fifth Batman movie. After June 30 the actors could follow; from Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Julia Roberts to the third guy from the left in that Colosseum scene in Gladiator, no members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) would shoot, well, pretty much anything.

The dark shadow of these looming strikes has fundamentally changed Tinseltown, postponing high-profile projects, forcing the potentially damaging acceleration of others, and possibly costing the entertainment industry billions in lost revenue.

”The mood of the town? Fear. Absolute fear. Deadly fear,” says Hollywood labor leader Vance Van Petten. ”The situation is horrible,” says director Jonathan Mostow (U-571). ”If [actors and writers] are on strike, look for another profession, because there’s nothing to do unless you have paper towels and plenty of Windex,” says Galaxy Quest producer Mark Johnson.

Just what in the name of George Meany is going on here?

This whole mess started in May, when SAG and AFTRA — which jointly represent 135,000 actors — launched a strike against advertisers. Besides charging that the ad industry is greedy, the unions are still stinging from failing to cash in on video and cable in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, the advertisers are shooting commercials with nonunion labor and trying to roll back the very benefits the actors want to expand.

Which would be meaningless to the average TV viewer and moviegoer if the current strike weren’t so nasty. The two sides haven’t met in seven weeks, and the union — which saw striking actor William Ray Embry die of an aneurysm after collapsing on a picket line Aug. 26 — has targeted FORTUNE 500 companies like General Motors and McDonald’s. Worse, the WGA and SAG and AFTRA will raise the same set of beefs with the movie and TV studios when their contracts expire.

”Foreign, home video, cable, Internet, these will all be huge [issues] again,” says Van Petten, executive director of the Producers Guild of America, which represents TV and movie producers. ”Come June 30, things could get very, very ugly. And the sense around town is that these strikes will happen.”