Magazine article Filmmaker

The Powers That Be

Magazine article Filmmaker

The Powers That Be

Article excerpt

Alicia Van Couvering helps indies strategize for the upcoming strike.

It is contract-negotiation time in the movie business with actors, writers and directors all gathering for a standoff against the studios set for June 30, 2008. While talks between the studios and the unions become tense, news of preliminary strike authorizations have led to a rush of green lights as studios get everything they can into production to prepare for the possibility of a walkout that could last months.

Hollywood may be quivering in terror, but what about the independents? How does the strike affect us?

Except for documentaries and very low-budget films, most productions become signatory to the same basic agreements with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA). A strike would shut down most independent producers while leaving the network and studio brass at the negotiating table. However, the threat of a strike may hold a silver lining for indie producers accustomed to betting the house in the name of their movie.

First let's examine where we are now. Although the WGA contract expires in October, if a deal isn't reached by the end of the month its officials are encouraging writers to work until June. That way they could join SAG and the DGA in a work stoppage, causing a near-total shutdown in projects utilizing members of any of these three unions.

In Hollywood, lists of fast track projects have been circulating for months, and development assistants spend their days making "pre-strike availability lists" for directors and actors. Studio production slates must be full in order to ensure product for next year. TV shows like Heroes have been putting in double orders for episodes and filming through their hiatus to make sure they don't get caught without programming in the fall. Filming days in Los Angeles are dramatically higher than this time last year.

"It's good in some ways," says Cotty Chubb, Executive Vice President of Production at Groundswell Productions in Los Angeles of the pre-strike frenzy. "There are opportunities to get shows into production because talent is motivated and so are their agents. But it's dangerous in others. Too much filming now can mean dogged distribution later. And no one knows what's going to happen next summer, strike or no strike. Last time [the unions went on strike], there was a real slump [after the strike] in both development and production since capital budgets were exhausted, and the pipelines were full. People lost their jobs."

Others on the ground are finding that all this activity is making the business of producing smaller-scale independent films even harder. Because actors are worrying about a prolonged work stoppage, it's not easy to appeal to their sense of art over commerce. "Most actors are looking for a big payday right now and trying to get studio movies," confirms casting director Adrienne Stern (Broken English). "Fear of the strike isn't making it easier to get cast attached to a low-budget film."

Even if cast is committed to an indie project, however, strike fears can still harm independents. "Personally, I would be careful starting anything in the next few months because you're going in knowing that everyone you're going to want, especially for crew, is probably already booked," says producer Jeff Levy-Hinte (Thirteen, The Last Winter).

But aren't there eight months left between now and the strike deadline for Hollywood and the unions to make nice? Why is Hollywood acting as if the strike is a certainty?

One reason is the fierce saber rattling that's already occurred on both sides of die table. The unions are demanding a bigger cut (in the form of higher residuals) of the new media pie, while some studio bargainers are suggesting that the residual system be all but dismantled. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a bargaining group made of representatives from the networks and studios, offered an initial proposal that sought to eliminate the paying of residuals before a film shows a profit. …

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