March 6, 2008 / 1:13 AM / 10 years ago

Hollywood braces for possible actors strike

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The final epilogue to the tumultuous writers strike has been written, but Hollywood is bracing for a possible sequel to the costly walkout -- this one starring film and television actors.

<p>The Hollywood Sign is seen between palm trees and snow dusted mountains in Los Angeles January 7, 2008. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok</p>

While the TV industry has rushed to bring derailed shows back on the air since screenwriters returned to work three weeks ago, the threat of renewed labor unrest by actors in the months ahead has put movie studios in a tenuous situation.

Filmmakers are reluctant to launch any production that cannot be completed before the expiration of the Screen Actors Guild’s major film and TV contract on June 30 -- a date being treated as the union’s de facto strike deadline.

Assuming a typical 60-day movie shoot, plus extra time for days off, possible overruns and re-shoots that might be necessary, that means few if any big-studio movies will start filming after the end of this month, industry experts say.

“The studios for the most part are not greenlighting any movies that would have to be in production after that (June 30) deadline,” said an insider at one leading talent agency who was not authorized to speak publicly about client issues.

Labor jitters have even prompted Hollywood’s leading insurance carrier, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co, to offer a first-of-its-kind “strike expense” policy for studios.

The policy covers the costs of a strike-related production shutdown in the event that an actor’s illness, equipment damage or other unexpected loss pushes the shooting schedule of a movie past SAG’s June 30 contract deadline.

To qualify, a film must be scheduled to finish shooting by June 15 and already be covered by a so-called completion bond, which insures a movie’s financial backers against the cost of failing to finish a picture on time and on budget.

STRIKE WAIVERS

SAG itself sought on Tuesday to assist smaller, independent producers having trouble getting bonded by offering special waivers that permit them to employ union actors in the event of a strike. The producers in turn must accept the terms of any interim contract SAG may offer and any final settlement reached with the major studios, which are ineligible for a waiver.

SAG already has signed several producers to one of its “guaranteed completion contracts,” and several more applications are pending, union sources said.

Nerves are still raw from a 14-week strike by 10,500 writers that shut down much of the television industry and derailed numerous film projects, idling thousands of production workers and costing the local economy some $3 billion.

The walkout ended February 12 after the two sides reached agreement on a deal giving writers more money for work distributed over the Internet. The contract was formally ratified by the Writers Guild of America membership last week.

The Screen Actors Guild shares many of the same contract demands. But SAG also faces issues unique to its 120,000 members, such as forced commercial endorsements through product placement in TV shows and movies.

<p>The Hollywood sign is seen on a hazy afternoon in Los Angeles, November 4, 2007. The final chapter to the tumultuous writers strike has been written, but Hollywood is bracing for a possible a sequel to the costly walkout -- this one starring film and television actors. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok</p>

Many in Hollywood believe strike fatigue is running too high for another work stoppage to materialize. But with tens of millions of dollars at stake when a film production is disrupted, movie studios are playing it safe. Some of the industry’s biggest names are caught up in the uncertainty.

Steven Spielberg has called off the April start to a DreamWorks film about the trial of the 1968 anti-war activists, the Chicago Seven, according to Daily Variety newspaper

Michael Bay, director of the 2007 summer action blockbuster “Transformers,” is keeping his fingers crossed as he and DreamWorks stick to an early June start date for a sequel to the movie.

“If there is a strike, we shut down. But shutting down isn’t that big a deal,” Bay told Variety, explaining that he hoped to mitigate the cost of a potential disruption by working out special deals in advance with equipment vendors and sound stages where he would shoot.

Independent producers who rely on third-party financing lack such flexibility because investors require completion bonds, which insurance companies are unwilling to issue for any film that cannot be finished by June 15.

SAG’s offer of guaranteed completion contracts is designed to help independent filmmakers overcome that hurdle.

PRESSURE FOR TALKS

Meanwhile, SAG leaders have come under mounting pressure to open contract talks with the major studios as soon as possible, leading to tensions between the guild and its sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

SAG President Alan Rosenberg, who campaigned on a promise to take an aggressive stance at the bargaining table, has insisted the guild will not be ready to begin official talks before early April.

Some leaders of AFTRA and SAG’s New York wing have agitated for talks to begin sooner, as have several high-profile actors, including George Clooney and Tom Hanks, who met with Rosenberg over dinner last month. They and other stars also took out full-page ads in Hollywood trade papers calling for immediate negotiations.

And over 1,000 SAG members recently presented Rosenberg with a petition urging the union to limit any voting on a new contract or strike authorization to those members who have worked a specified number of days during the past six years.

Rosenberg said he opposes the idea but would take it to SAG’s governing board at its next meeting in April.

Rosenberg and SAG executive director Doug Allen recently suggested that informal talks like those that led to contracts with the WGA and the Directors Guild of America, were already under way. “We will certainly continue to meet with the CEOs of the major networks and studios as we prepare for formal negotiations,” they wrote in a February 28 memo to members.

Reuters/Nielsen

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