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The state of Hollywood
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Ellen Page dropped out of Sam Raimi's supernatural thriller Drag Me To Hell because the start of filming was delayed due to the possible SAG strike. (Getty Images)
Hollywood writers recently settled a 14-week strike that threw the movie and TV industries into turmoil. The strike ended just in time to permit the televising of the Oscars, which hardly anyone watched.
That's the good news.
The bad news comes in several packages. The first is the growing suspicion that the settlement of the strike didn't exactly mollify the artistic community. Exhibit A: Harlan Ellison, a veteran science-fiction author, TV writer and movie scenarist (The Oscar) who is also known as one of the more outspoken members of the Hollywood community. During the strike, as the screenwriters' guild was storming the gates of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the union started a website called United Hollywood to bring the workers together. After the strike was settled, the site became a place where they could give their opinions about the peaceful settlement of their concerns.
Here -- with capital letters in place -- is a small part of a posting by Ellison:
"THEY BEAT US LIKE A YELLOW DOG. IT IS A SHIT DEAL. We finally got a timorous generation that has never had to strike, to get their asses out there, and we had to put up with the usual cowardly spineless babbling horse's asses who kept mumbling 'lessgo bac'ta work' over and over, as if it would make them one iota a better writer. But after months on the line . . . we rushed headlong into a shabby, scabrous, underfed shovelfulla shit clutched to the affections of toss-in-the-towel summer soldiers trembling before the Awe of the Alliance."
Which is to say, not everyone is happy with the outcome of the writers' strike. And as it deals with the resentments, the movie industry is beginning to face the possibility that it could start all over again. The biggest names of all are talking walkout.
The Screen Actors Guild -- representing 120,000 of your favourite multi-millionaire movie stars, as well as the lesser-known workaday actors who can't afford a long layoff -- is preparing for contract talks. The SAG contract ends on June 30, and negotiations haven't started yet, a situation that is angering some union members. George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep recently took out ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter urging the sides to start talking, and the head of the New York branch of the guild says he's frustrated.
The uncertainty has already cost one movie its star. Ellen Page dropped out of Sam Raimi's supernatural thriller Drag Me To Hell because the start of filming was delayed to March 31 from March 17, which caused a conflict with her other upcoming movies. The producers of Drag Me To Hell said the impending SAG strike necessitated moving the start date.
SAG previously went on strike in 1980 for three months (actors who do commercials had a six-month strike in 2000), and another stoppage now, in the wake of the writers' strike, would cripple an already weary movie industry. Movies are fighting incursions from Internet pirates and new media platforms -- the question of residuals from such uses of screenplays was at the heart of the writers' strike.
Hollywood is also experiencing a distressing cleavage between the "show" and the "business:" The recent Oscar broadcast drew only 32 million viewers, a record low, at least partly because the biggest box office hits weren't in line for the biggest Academy Awards.
And now the blockbusters are threatened as well. Transformers 2, a sequel to one of the biggest films of 2007, is being hindered by the strike threat: Variety reports that director Michael Bay has hired three writers and put them into what he called "Michael Bay jail," a hotel suite where they're working feverishly to finish a script before the strike. "Michael Bay jail" sounds like a better movie than Transformers 2, but that's not the point.
Two other bonanzas in the making, Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins, the fourth in the series in the sci-fi franchise, and Angels & Demons, the followup to The Da Vinci Code, were both scheduled to start shooting in the summer. To dodge the possibility of a strike, director Ron Howard will shoot Angels & Demons exteriors in Rome in June so he can shoot the rest at a studio in Los Angeles without starting and stopping. McG, the director of the Terminator movie, is doing the same thing: exteriors shot first, and the scenes that require actors later, at soundstages in New Mexico.
None of this may hurt -- three writers sounds like a lot for a Transformers movie, "working feverishly" shouldn't make much difference, and shooting exteriors first probably won't harm either of the other films -- but it's a sign of an industry that seems to be losing its way, perhaps through greed, perhaps through pride.
Last year, Hollywood turned out some of the best films in memory: Oscar-winners like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, and smaller, gritty films like The Savages and Margot At The Wedding. The money flowed in, even if most of it was earned by blockbusters and not the year's artistic successes. The North American box office went up four per cent to $9.7 billion (US). It seems there should be enough good news for everyone.