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Hollywood in crisis

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Last January, Canada’s actors went on strike for the first time in 64 years. Their walkout lasted 44 days and disrupted plans for several U.S. productions set to film in the country. Now, here in the U.S., the question is being asked with ever-increasing urgency: As goes Canada, so goes Hollywood?

A potential entertainment-industry strike is still months away — the Writers Guild contract with the film and TV studios expires this October, while both the Screen Actors and Directors Guilds have until June 2008 to renegotiate their deals — but the issues on the table are major. All three groups want heftier shares of profits from DVD sales and new-media downloads, but the studios say they can’t afford to give them more money.

Now there are ominous signs that Hollywood is bracing for the worst. In lunch meetings and at movie premieres all over town, it’s pretty much all anyone can talk about. And the industry is already taking steps to prepare for what many are calling inevitable, considering how intractable all sides seem to be so far. Some studios confirm (off the record, naturally) that they are no longer greenlighting film projects with shooting schedules that would stretch beyond June 2008. On the TV side, NBC has pushed returning series like Las Vegas into production earlier than usual, and it took the extra step of placing a larger episode order for The Office. One TV insider adds that the networks are also banking theatrical films and ramping up their reality TV plans. Many actors, meanwhile, are readying themselves for lean times to come by shrugging off smaller indie projects in favor of movies offering bigger paychecks. And producers are expressing fears that talent will be in short supply as films rush to finish shooting before the June 2008 cutoff date. ”There is a hysteria about it,” says one producer who declined to be named. ”Actors and directors are going to work in the fall and spring so they don’t miss the opportunity to make movies. There is not a talent shortage yet — but there will be in three months.”

The last time Hollywood experienced a major work stoppage was in 1988, when a 154-day writers’ strike crippled the industry and led to a delayed fall TV season. This time, the stakes may be even greater: The writers, directors, and actors are hoping to make up ground they lost years ago from negotiating a less-than-favorable deal in regards to ancillary revenue, such as home-video sales. ”We’re determined not to make the same mistake that was made in the ’80s,” says WGA Negotiating Committee chair John Bowman. ”The problem then was a lack of foresight on everyone’s part. Now the Internet is here. We can’t make that mistake again.”

The frustrated studios, meanwhile, feel that the writers are backing them into a corner. The writers’ refusal to begin negotiating until mid-July is fueling speculation that all three talent guilds might join forces next summer and present a united front (though none of the guilds will confirm this strategy). It all couldn’t be happening at a more tenuous time: A strike could trigger a huge exodus — of both viewers and talent — from traditional entertainment platforms. ”What’s being overlooked is how vulnerable the big companies are,” says screenwriter John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish). ”A lot of their power comes from their dominance of the distribution system. YouTube and their ilk change that equation. The upcoming generation of writers, directors, and performers are going to succeed without needing a corporation involved.”

Even if the strike doesn’t happen, the mere threat can still do damage. In 2000, the last time a potential writers’ strike loomed, some studios reacted by greenlighting films and TV shows that simply weren’t ready — and execs swear that won’t happen again. But the truth is, some are already pushing more projects into production and, in turn, raising blood pressures all over town. ”It’s never good to rush these things,” says veteran producer Richard Gladstein (Finding Neverland, The Bourne Identity). ”It’s time taken away from refining a script or preparing a movie. Those movies generally don’t meet with the best results.”

And what about you, the moviegoers and TV watchers who pay Hollywood’s bills in the first place? How can you prepare for the coming strike? You might want to get comfortable with YouTube. Or pick up a new hobby. Because there may not be much new stuff to watch come 2009. Though we do hear that Canadian TV is pretty entertaining. — Additonal reporting by Vanessa Juarez

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