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E. Barry Haldeman

‘What’s Going On?’: Actors and Producers Continue Their Drama

Remember the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Going On?” Well, that is what many in the TV and film business are singing these days.

Hollywood has suffered a series of strikes and threatened strikes for more than a year. Last November, the writers went on strike, then the directors’ contract came up for renewal (both were resolved) and then, this June, the agreements for the powerful Screen Actors Guild and the smaller actor’s union, AFTRA, both expired on the same day.

AFTRA and SAG, who had always negotiated together, got in a fistfight internally and AFTRA separately made a deal with the producers (including the studios and networks). SAG, the biggest actor’s union with the majority of actors in film and television programs, has not, to this day, reached an agreement with the producers. They haven’t even officially met since July 16.

This means that SAG actors could theoretically strike at any time. This situation has affected all parts of the industry. First: right after the directors and writers settled and before the actors’ agreements expired, studios rushed a great deal of films into production-many films that should not have been made-just so they would have something to release if the actors went on strike.

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Next: Although the SAG agreement had expired and the threat of an actor’s strike was in the air, many television shows continued production. After all, it would take about three to four weeks for the actors to vote to strike, and since television makes a complete program every two to three weeks, a show could shut down without too much problem; it was worth the gamble. Also, TV producers reasoned that if they didn’t start putting traditional programs on the air, networks would fill up their schedules with “The Biggest Loser” clones and many producers would be relegated to casting sessions in obscure towns looking for stranger and stranger people.

Major studios, however, announced they would not start pictures until the actors settled. Studios weren’t willing to risk actors striking right in the middle of photography of some $100 million picture with a 10-week shooting schedule. So large studio film production came to a standstill.

Smaller independent film producers, the ones who make the films you often see at the Laemmle and Landmark theaters, suddenly came into their own. First, SAG announced that if independent productions were not financed or distributed by the studios, SAG would give them a “pass” and let those movies go forward as long as their producers agreed to the terms SAG was trying to get from the big studios. And something else happened-since actors, even famous ones, weren’t working on studio movies, they started focusing on small quality films or their own “passion projects” for which they would take dramatically less money. Voila-independent producers were awash with excellent actors, many with marquee value.

Result: there is now a glut of smaller, sometimes excellent films that, together with the glut of films that were rushed to production in the early part of the year, have created a traffic jam of movies with only a limited number of release slots. (Notice how two or three films used to be released on a weekend, and now it’s six?)

Meanwhile, studios are looking at their 2009-10 release schedules and realizing they don’t have enough pictures. What’s a mogul to do?

So everyone is reevaluating. SAG certainly must realize that the strategy of holding their breath until they turn blue is not working; all they have is a bunch of blue-faced, unemployed, cranky actors. Studios must realize that they had better find a way to make movies or their corporate owners might soon start thinking that turning sound stages into condos could, in the long run, make them more money.

Result: SAG has called for a federal mediator to try to get the parties back together and the studios have announced that they will commence production of big movies starting this spring. (That either shows tremendous optimism or creates a dare to SAG to see if their starving members will really vote to stop working.) And guess what-the two sides will finally meet this week.

My prediction?

Everyone will use the federal mediator as a face-saving device to resolve their differences and will be kissy-kissy by Christmas. And Hollywood will again sleep safely at night … until the next time.

E. Barry Haldeman is an experienced entertainment lawyer with the full service firm of Jeffer Mangels, Butler and Marmaro LLP in Century City. He represents writers, producers, actors, authors and companies in the entertainment business. He previously served as Executive Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs for Paramount Pictures.

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