As Writers' Strike Looms, Studios Rush To Lock Down Scripts
Last week, guild members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a new contract couldn't be worked out with the studios and networks. All over town, executives, agents, producers and writers are nervously girding for what might be the industry's biggest labor confrontation in 20 years. Depending on how negotiations go, the strike could come as early as Nov. 1, although the guild could choose to continue negotiating under the existing contract. Nevertheless, almost everyone in town is gripped by a sense of foreboding, as it remains unclear how the talks between the guild and the studios will pan out. "Everybody is living in the impending doom," Goldsman said.
While a writers strike would affect TV production almost immediately, given that most shows stockpile only a few scripts at a time, the movie business would have its own problems. Because of the complicated logistics and special effects of most event movies, it can take months of preparation to get a blockbuster ready to shoot, preferably with a finished script. Studios start planning years ahead, staking out prime release dates. Recently, the studios have all but stopped hiring writers to crack books or write new screenplays as they plow their resources into readying films that need to go immediately, say various agents and executives.
"People are freaking," one top literary agent said. "Studios are trying to figure out how to do without writers, and everyone out there who writes for a living is trying to figure out how to keep making a living."
Both sides are busy parsing the recently issued WGA strike rules, which are geared to make it as difficult as possible to continue shooting films without writers. For instance, members would be barred from finessing dialogue to suit an actor, changing stage directions because a location got rained out or even changing a beverage from Coke to vitamin water because the proper product clearance couldn't be secured.
Writers Guild general counsel Tony Segall said "a ton" of writers and their representatives have called with questions, perhaps because most of them have never been through a strike. Roughly two-thirds of the current members were not in the guild during the 1988 strike.
Although studios routinely start production without a finished script, no one wants to take that chance in this climate, so there is a rush to lock down scripts in completely finished form before the contract runs out.
"Given what's at stake and the [time] we have left, our writers on every project are working under inhuman amounts of pressure," said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who is producing "G.I. Joe," Paramount Pictures' would-be tent-pole movie for summer 2009, which as of last week hadn't even been officially greenlighted .
In September, the "G.I. Joe" team hired "Collateral" scribe Stuart Beattie to begin a total overhaul of the script. Beattie turned in his first draft by the beginning of October and is now busily working on a second set of revisions, due back to Paramount Wednesday.
"G.I. Joe" is hardly the only potential 2009 blockbuster rushing to meet the strike deadline. Oscar winner Paul Haggis is plowing through "Bond 22." Since Oct. 1, Oscar nominee Scott Frank has been holed up with director Shawn Levy trying to pound out a shootable version of "Night at the Museum 2." For the past two weeks, Billy Ray has been polishing up "State of Play," a political thriller starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.
According to one top agent, almost every studio has at least two films on the schedule that will have trouble meeting the accelerated deadline.
Most of the 2008 event movies titles such as "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and the big-screen version of "Sex and the City" are expected to roll without problem into theaters next summer. Sources say "Star Trek," slated for Christmas 2009, will take off as planned and start filming next month.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has decided to wait until the labor unrest is resolved to begin shooting "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time," based on the popular video game.
Like many writers, Ray says he's just keeping his head down and writing as fast as he can. But that doesn't mean Ray's not worried. "This strike would be such a total calamity for everybody involved," he said.
Indeed, there is palpable fear that even if a strike is averted or short-lived, there will be a replay of 2001, when, because of the threat of a writers strike, the studios jammed subquality films into production just so the pipelines would stay filled.
"Next year there's going to be a plethora of bad movies movies that were rushed because of the supposed strike," said producer Todd Black, who has two films in pre-production at Columbia: "Seven Pounds," a romantic drama starring Will Smith, and a remake of the crime thriller "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" starring Denzel Washington. Black insists that there's going to be "no rushing" on his movies.
Whatever the outcome, October 2007 will go down in movie history as either one of the most productive months in recent memory or the most stress-provoking.