Hollywood braces for a writers' guild strike

HOLLYWOOD — Television and film writers, actors and crew members around town are canceling vacations, working overtime and squirreling away savings while they still can.

Talent agencies, post-production houses and equipment rental shops have drawn up plans to slash expenses and payrolls while caterers and special-effects houses scramble to find jobs that reduce their dependence on the entertainment industry.

All over Hollywood, people are bracing for a strike.

Writers could walk out as early as Thursday if their union can't hammer out a three-year employment contract with the studios to replace the one that expires at midnight on Halloween.

The two sides were huddled Friday at the Writers Guild of America's offices in an effort to wrangle a deal. Writers were still digging in their heels, although studios were prepared to negotiate through the weekend.

It would be the first writers' strike in 20 years — and more painful than the last one, in 1988, which lasted five months, economists say. Hollywood is a more dominant force in the region today, with studios and networks part of media giants such as Time Warner Inc., Walt Disney Co. and News Corp. that have bulked up to feed an entertainment-hungry world.

The timing would be unfortunate, given the already disruptive housing downturn and, lately, the wildfires.

"If it (cost the city) $500 million in 1988, a slowdown of that length would have over a $1 billion impact today. I'm very concerned," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "It would have a deleterious impact."

Because of the scores of businesses that rely on the entertainment industry, a long walkout would inflict pain beyond Hollywood's studio gates.

"It would affect everyone: the people who mow your lawn and those who serve you at restaurants," said former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who helped avert a Hollywood labor dispute when he was in office in 2001. "It's not just the wealthy that are going to get hurt."

The entertainment industry contributes nearly 7 percent — an estimated $30 billion annually — to the county's $442 billion economy, supporting not only studio jobs but also a panoply of companies that directly and indirectly service Hollywood, from hotels and restaurants to florists and dog groomers.

Although tourism and international trade employ more people, entertainment remains the region's signature industry, accounting for about 250,000 jobs and as many more that are indirectly tied to the business. That is up from about 69,000 in 1985, although certain jobs that are counted now were not included then.

If a strike were to occur, one of the hardest-hit sectors would be the tens of thousands of technical workers who toil behind the scenes on the sets of movies and TV shows. Electricians, camera operators and other blue-collar crews work under separate contracts and don't have a say in whether writers walk.

No one can predict how long any strike might last. Although the film and TV writers are not discussing their plan of attack, picket lines probably would go up at select studios.

Production would not come to a complete halt. Writers for commercials, sports programs and reality TV would be free to work because they are not covered under the WGA contract.

Filming on movies with finished screenplays would continue. Television programs with a stockpile of scripts would keep being made. Networks appear to have enough shows written to carry them through most of the fall TV season. Several popular series, however, could run dry as early as December.

The networks have been sorting through their libraries looking for reruns and various unscripted programs such as game shows that they could use in the event of a prolonged strike.

The danger is that TV viewers, should their favorite shows disappear, could turn to the Internet and other forms of entertainment that increasingly are grabbing younger audiences. Some popular network shows, including "Moonlighting," never recovered after going off the air during the 1988 strike.

"Maybe people won't come back," said former Warner Bros. Chairman Bob Daly, now retired. "Look what happened during the baseball strike. Attendance was down and didn't come back right away. People were very angry; we missed the World Series! It took a while for people to forgive baseball."

In this case, he added: "The average person doesn't pick sides here. They just say, 'Why can't I watch "Law & Order" and "Desperate Housewives"?'"

The WGA and studio representatives have been negotiating since July, making little progress toward an agreement. The two sides are far apart on several issues, including extra payments when their work appears on home video and is distributed via the Internet.

Also fueling labor tensions are upcoming contract talks with two other unions — representing actors and directors — whose contracts will end concurrently June 30. Although the Directors Guild of America probably will negotiate an early deal with studios, as it has in the past, the Screen Actors Guild — which shares many of the writers' concerns — is expected to engage in contentious talks.

The prospect of one or more strikes would come at an especially bad time for Southern California, where the local economy has been squeezed by a downturn in the housing market and the financial services industry. That helped to increase Los Angeles County's unemployment rate to 5.1 percent in September, up from 4.6 percent last year, economists said.

Even without a strike, the local economy is expected to slow next year, growing by 0.9 percent, down from 1.1 percent in 2007, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"It's not the best of times for something like this to happen," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the development organization. "If a strike lasts a few weeks, it will be a blip. If it lasts several months, it would definitely have a significant impact."

Making matters worse is that Los Angeles has lost thousands of feature film productions over the past decade to countries including Canada and Britain and more recently to other states — including New Mexico and New York — that offer tax incentives.

(Begin optional trim)

A prime-time TV program produced in Los Angeles employs hundreds of people. Take Fox's popular spy drama "24." About 350 people work on the show. In addition to nine writers and 11 actors who are series regulars, the crew includes 35 people who help build sets, 14 who handle security, 27 who work in transportation, 17 lighting technicians and riggers, three medics, 14 set decorators and 25 directors, unit production managers, producers and office staffers.

A drawn-out strike could throw thousands of such workers onto the street, a prospect that makes many local businesses uneasy.

(End optional trim)

David Offer, a real estate broker with Prudential California Realty who specializes in high-end sales, said: "At a time when the mortgage market is a mess and there are depreciating home values, we don't need any other outside forces impacting us."

Companies such as Burbank's 24/7 Studio Equipment Inc., which leases forklifts and aerial equipment to film crews and employs 43 people, are girding for the worst. "It would be devastating for us," co-owner Lance Sorenson said. "I couldn't survive unless I changed my entire business plan."

In preparation for a possible strike, the studios have accelerated projects, scrambling to shoot as many episodes of existing series before any work stoppage. They have imposed an Oct. 31 deadline for writers to submit their scripts, creating a mad rush.

A strike next month would be most disruptive to midseason programs that will begin airing in January and to next year's TV pilot season. A prolonged walkout could force networks to cancel series in advance of the February sweeps period, when the networks showcase their best programs to drive up ratings and try to improve station advertising prices that are set during these periods.

As for movies, studios are shooting some films sooner than they would have, mainly to get them completed before a possible actors strike. Unlike the networks, the studios have enough films in their pipeline to fill theaters in 2008.

Still, some feature productions have been derailed or stalled. Michael Diersing, a construction coordinator, was preparing to work on "Creature From the Black Lagoon" in Brazil and Los Angeles when he received word that Universal Pictures had pulled the plug on the movie, in part because the script needed work and couldn't be rewritten before Oct. 31. The decision affected about 200 crew members, Diersing said.

"I've got a couple of hundred people that were all counting on being able to support their families," he said. "Everybody was pretty shocked."

Share This Story