No Home Runs in This Strike
Tallying the results of the Writers Guild Strike
By Devin D. O’Leary
When the 80th Annual Academy Awards arrive this Sunday, they will cap off one of the most tumultuous roller-coaster years in Hollywood history. A summer bloated with record-breaking, mega-budget films (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Transformers) gave way to a fall filled with exceptional, challenging cinema (No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood). But it was the Writers Guild of America strike--beginning on Nov. 5, 2007, and concluding on Feb. 12, 2008--that threw our entertainment picture into a tizzy.
Writers took up picket lines, actors refused to cross them and the term “strike beard” entered the common lexicon. In the wake of the walkout, studios scrambled to fill their calendars. TV stations doled out new shows with an eyedropper and rushed even more reality series into production. Movie producers shuffled release dates and pushed production on big-ticket films (The Da Vinci Code sequel Angels and Demons, for example) into the far-flung future.
Actors, unwilling to cross picket lines, were unable to hype their films throughout the holiday movie season. But the industry really started shaking in its boots when Award Show Season started crumbling. Unable to hire writers or to get nominees past WGA picket lines, the awards shows were a sorry lot to say the least. Some--the Screen Actors Guild Awards, for example--got special waivers and were able to proceed unimpeded. The first major award show to stumble was the People’s Choice Awards. Instead of the usual congratulatory party, this year’s awards featured Queen Latifah standing on an empty stage all by herself reading off the winners and trying to sound extremely happy. Even worse was the venerable Golden Globes. Long considered the prime dress rehearsal for the Oscars, the Golden Globes are normally a smorgasbord of drunken stars, outrageous clothes and entertaining speeches. This year, viewers were treated to a bare-bones “news conference” in which Billy Bush and Nancy O’Dell stood behind a podium and recited a list of the winners (often incorrectly). The broadcast lured a mere 5.8 million viewers--barely a quarter of the number last year’s show had. NBC lost an estimated $10 to $15 million in advertising simply refunding corporations who had purchased advertising for the anemic show.
In a strange bit of collateral damage, fashion watchers even speculated that Paris couture suffered millions of dollars in losses due to the strike. No stars walking the red carpet giving free advertising to dressmakers and jewelers and no demand for knockoff dresses was an incalculable blow to Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani and others.
Another huge headache caused by the strike was the virtual cancellation of pilot season. Right about this time of year, Hollywood would be cranking out dozens of TV show pilots in the hope that some would be picked up for development for the upcoming fall season. As it stands now, major networks are reticent to commit to so many pilots (as many as 150 per year), few of which will actually result in airable TV shows. Instead, networks will spend the summer slowly nurturing a smaller number of shows, all of which should go straight into production. The hope is that this will produce less waste and better shows.
A lot of industry observers say the end of traditional pilot season may end up being a good thing. There’s no real reason for TV stations to stick with the fall = new shows, spring = midseason replacements, summer = endless reruns business model. Thanks to cable TV and its year-round selection of high-quality limited run series (“The Sopranos,” “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “The Shield,” “Mad Men”), regular old network television was starting to look a bit stale. In January, NBC Universal Chief Executive Officer Jeff Zucker announced the elimination of pilot season would save his company as much as $50 million a year. Zucker went on to say his company may still produce a pilot or two each year, just not on a regular schedule.
Of course, the restructuring of pilot season resulted in a lot of lost contracts for writers. In a further moneysaving move, most networks canceled their exclusive “sweetheart deals” with certain well-known writers. These expensive holdovers from the pre-cable days of the Big Three networks paid upwards of $2 million a year to writer-producers who would be given a paycheck, an office and an assistant at a studio or network in exchange for coming up with clever new ideas for TV shows. On Jan. 14 (now known around the industry as “Black Monday”), CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC and others cut more than 100 of these development deals. Bad for the writers, but--in the long term--possibly good for TV as a whole.
So how will the writers themselves make out once all the dust settles? The results are decidedly mixed. Demands for the Writers Guild to start representing writers of animated shows and reality series was dropped weeks ago. The main sticking point of the contract negotiations--Internet downloads, satellite pay-per-view and other so-called “new media”--was resolved. For the first time, writers will be getting residuals off these nontraditional, but increasingly popular, methods of distribution. Whether or not this will offset more than three months of lost paychecks remains to be seen.
In the end, estimates place the economic losses of this recently concluded strike at more than $2 billion for the localized Hollywood economy alone. That’s four times more than was lost during the 1988 WGA strike--and that strike lasted six weeks longer. But if there’s one thing Hollywood knows how to do, it’s make money and lots of it. Transformers 2, anyone?
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