IN THE BALANCE
What if They Called a Strike and No One Noticed?
Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan
offense to actors – they should earn as much as they can –
but to the rest of us, last year’s Screen Actors Guild
never exactly registered. And for all the doom-and-gloom
forecasts, Hollywood’s impending writers’ strike promises
to be another such non-event.
last year's strike by actors against producers of TV commercials
lasted six months, we couldn’t tell the difference when we
switched on our sets. There
seemed to be just as many [Media
Channel] Nike shoes and Big Macs and adult
diapers (Your Product Here) taking up space on our screens.
More, in fact. Last year was the year the Dotcoms burned through
their paper IPO millions trying to make us believe in the
don’t forget the onslaught of political ads in the fall. Political
advertising has become so lucrative that it is a disincentive
to political reportage: Why give
away what you can sell? [Columbia
Journalism Review, 1-2/2001] It was, when all was tallied,
a record year for media advertising.
you’d have thought that once the actors who make the ads had
pulled the collective plug, citizenry of the Flickering Blue
Nation might have noticed. Actors, after all, are thought
to be a necessary part of the TV commercial industry. Yet
actors gave up an estimated $115
million in wages [Backstage]
and royalties during the strike and nobody (besides producers)
seemed to notice.
by writers against Hollywood producers [Chicago
Tribune] this summer looks to be another well-contained
“catastrophe,” prophecies to the contrary notwithstanding.
For months now, hardly a day has gone by without a story somewhere
on the allegedly impending apocalypse. Jack Valenti, president
of the Motion Picture Association of America paints a dire
scenario: "A strike would cause such economic devastation,
it would make the movie industry a vast wasteland."
is now America’s biggest export, and any disruption in the
flow of product could mean that - a thought to make the blood
run cold – people might go to fewer movies? But will the strike
have that effect?
producers have been “stockpiling” scripts [Los
Angeles Times] so they’ll have projects to work on when
the strike happens. So you can bet that scripts for the sure
things – Bridget Jones II and Police Academy 46
are already in the can. And there’s no shortage of unmade
scripts lying around that could be tackled after the obvious
projects are exhausted.
to the Writers Guild, its member writers work only about half
the time. In all of 1999, only
51 percent of Guild writers sold a project [Boston
Globe]. That, says the Guild, is one reason why the residuals
issue is so huge.
another way of looking at it – from the movie-goer’s perspective
– is that if half of the writers don’t work in a given year
anyway, will it make much of a difference if the other half
is gone too?
is typically the confluence of circumstance and packaging
– such-and-such a star agrees to make so-and-so director’s
picture at such-and-such studio who’s lined up so-and-so to
produce it. Scripts, even ideas for scripts, are only so much
fodder for unwieldy and sometimes unlikely alliances of business
interests that only converge to exploit a business opportunity.
not at all the best scripts that get made, it’s the scripts
that are best able to assemble the right combination of packaging
and star power behind them.
enough in the typical producer’s slush pile to keep the studios
running for years. How hard can it be to top Battlefield
Earth?[CNN] – it’s all
how you conceive or (re-conceive) the packaging.
with a full complement of writers toiling away, Hollywood
still churns out an endless supply of ill-written mishmashes
Dirt [Toronto Sun] and
and the Pussycats [South Florida
Sun Central], and people still go to
only one in ten movies actually turns a profit
[The Economist]. Also granted that though
Hollywood generated a record $28 billion
in movie admissions and video/DVD rentals [Toronto
Globe and Mail] last year, the number
of actual admissions [Variety] has
declined in each of the past two years (the revenue increase
is a result of higher ticket prices).
in the past year, more than a thousand movie theatre screens
closed in North America [ABC News.com],
and ten of the largest movie theatre chains have filed
for bankruptcy [Variety].
But that isn’t because people aren’t going to movies; it’s
a result of massive overbuilding of megaplex theatres in the
past few years. And one can’t help but think that the reason
nine of ten movies loses money has more to do with the average
$82 million it cost to make a movie last year.
writers have some legitimate gripes. They’re mostly concerned
about the amount
of residuals they earn [E-online].
In the past decade the cost of manufacturing a videocassette
has dropped from about $14 to $3, (videotapes account for
$20 billion of movie industry revenues) but the writers’
share hasn’t increased [Boston Globe].
The writers union also wants to increase the share writers
get for basic cable and foreign TV sales.
stories and screenplays, actors and directors don’t have much
to work with. And it must be galling to see some spoiled slack-jawed
actor pulling down
$30 million for his troubles [The
Guardian] as he mangles your hard-hewn prose, knowing
all the while that the bankers, the producers, and even the
directors don’t respect you.
the same, we’re betting that the average movie-goer won’t
even notice from the comfort of the theatre seat that there’s
a strike going on.
- following Valenti's apocalyptic warnings - who stands to
be most hurt if the strike actually happens?
- Not the writers – a good idea
during the strike is likely still a good idea after. It
takes so long to actually make a project that a six-month
interruption won’t impact the average writer much.
- Not producers, who will keep
churning out product (maybe even at lower cost with non-union
- And not audiences, who are likely
to continue slurping up whatever Hollywood throws at them.
only sure loser is the institution of Hollywood itself. With
every Hollywood labor imbroglio and cost increase, more business
is lost to states and countries panting to lure away a glamorous
And maybe that won’t be a bad thing. Maybe
we’ll start to get some different kinds of movies. For all
its woes, Hollywood currently so dominates the movie industry
that French or English or Canadian movies have
trouble getting seen [The
Telegraph], even at home.
But don’t bet on it. More likely nothing
will change when it comes to the movies themselves, not least
of all the $10
it now costs for a movie ticket [Chicago
Sun-Times] in some cities. Hollywood isn’t just
a place – it’s a lucrative formula. Hollywood in another city
will still be Hollywood.
Unfortunate maybe for those who work in the physical Hollywood,
but hardly an “apocalypse” for the rest of us.
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