Writers, actors unions gird for strike
By Lauren Hunter
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The sounds of film and television production in Hollywood may soon be silenced. Union contracts for writers and actors expire soon, and everyone in the business is gearing up for something no one wants -- a strike.
The writers' current contract ends May 1, while actors face a June 30 deadline.
Formal talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers broke off in early March, but both sides have agreed to return to the bargaining table April 17.
Actors have set May 10 to start their own contract talks, though that date may slip if writers' negotiations have not concluded.
Charles Holland, co-chair of the negotiating committee for the Writers Guild of America, says 90 percent of the economic issues are the same for writers as well as actors.
"The two guilds are talking with each other, and it's very likely that the two guilds will coordinate and act in concert," he says. "This is an issue that companies have to solve with artists, and the two artists that they're talking to are writers and actors. They're going to have to solve the issue with both of us."
Claiming they've been giving studios a break for years by working under an antiquated pay structure, writers are pressing for better residual payments for work airing on cable TV, video, the Internet and in foreign distribution.
The concerns cannot wait, says Charles Holland of the Writers Guild. "For the last 13 years we haven't addressed structural problems that we have," he says. "A lot of those problems could have been handled incrementally and it was put off because, 'Oh, there's a better time.' There's never a good time."
Many actors agree, and say new rules are needed to accompany today's technology. Among them is Chris Noth, a regular on the HBO series "Sex and the City." For five years, he also appeared on "Law & Order," a show that pops up routinely on cable channels.
"Cable has become something much bigger than expected," says Noth, "so that when a show like 'Law & Order' is seen three times a day, five days a week ... when you get that kind of exposure all the time and don't get paid anything, there's got to be something done."
Studios get ready
But film and TV studios argue that profits are being squeezed by soaring production costs, an audience fractured by numerous viewing choices and an economy that's gone flat.
For several months studios have been preparing for a strike by ramping up movie production. According to the Economic Development Corporation of Los Angeles County, feature film work in Los Angeles is up 45 percent compared with this time last year.
TV networks are also taking a preemptive strike -- shooting extra episodes of established shows and relying heavily on news magazines, game shows and reality series for their summer and fall schedules.
An impending strike would have a profound effect on what is seen on TV, says TV Guide columnist Mark Schwed.
"Guess what? If you can't write a show and you can't hire anybody to act in a show... you don't have a show," he says. "You don't have a new show, you don't have a second season of a show, you don't have a 10th season of a show. You got nothing."
Holland of the Writers Guild says the time and money invested by studios planning for a strike could have been better spent.
"Companies have spent far more money preparing for a strike than they would have if they'd just given us everything we'd asked for," he says.
Even Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has joined the fray, and recently commissioned a study assessing the possible impact of a work stoppage. The writers' strike would cost the city $457 million per week -- a "disaster" for everyone in the city, he said.
Actor Warren Beatty echoes the mayor.
"It would be very negative for the city, for the business, for the (production) companies for the actors, for the writers, for the directors," he says. "It's not good at all."
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