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Hollywood In The Balance
What if They Called a Strike and No One Noticed?

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

No offense to actors – they should earn as much as they can – but to the rest of us, last year’s Screen Actors Guild strike [Backstage] never exactly registered.  And for all the doom-and-gloom forecasts, Hollywood’s impending writers’ strike promises to be another such non-event.

Though 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 new economy.

And 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.

But 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.

The impending strike 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." 

Entertainment 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? 

Contingency Plans

For months 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.

According 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.

But 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?

Movie-making 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.

It’s 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.

There’s 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.

Even with a full complement of writers toiling away, Hollywood still churns out an endless supply of ill-written mishmashes like Joe Dirt [Toronto Sun] and Josie and the Pussycats [South Florida Sun Central], and people still go to see them.

Granted, 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).

Indeed, in the past year, more than a thousand movie theatre screens have 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.

The 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.

Without 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.

All 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.

Any Winners?

So - 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 hires).
  • And not audiences, who are likely to continue slurping up whatever Hollywood throws at them.

The 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 industry.

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.

Additional Reading: Our "Hollywood on Strike" archives

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