Strike Won? Strike Two and Three

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The nation breathed a sigh of relief last week when the strike of actors in television commercials was settled. After nearly six months, Americans can again watch TV secure in the knowledge that spiels for hemorrhoid remedies will be delivered only by union thespians.

In Manhattan and Hollywood, moguls might have preferred concentrating on the World Series, now that the dispute — between the producers of TV spots and two unions, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) — was resolved with major concessions on both sides. But the settling of Strike One simply filled folks with anxious thoughts of Strike Two and Strike Three. In a few months, contracts will expire that link actors and writers to the movie studios and TV networks. If either employee group walks, entertainment could take a billion-dollar whack.

Movies that begin production later than early March will have trouble getting insured, because in the event of a July 1 actors' strike, a production would likely go unfinished. So studios have been hitting the fast-forward button to complete a year's worth of movies in six months. "The studios are ready for a strike, says producer Dan Jinks ("American Beauty"). "They are putting so much money into development now and production in the spring that there'll be a de facto strike whether there's a strike or not."

This means that top actors are even busier than usual. Tom Cruise will motor directly from Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" to Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report." John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts — all are piggybacking big projects. Director Steven Soderbergh has fiddled with the shooting schedule for his remake of "Ocean's Eleven" to accommodate Roberts after she finishes shooting "America's Sweethearts." "I was happy to do make the adjustment," says Soderbergh. "She's doing me an enormous favor."

This sort of hurry-up can induce bidding wars for unknowns. Colin Farrell, an Irish actor whose only notable film work was in Joel Schumacher's scruffy "Tigerland," snagged the title role in a Willis war drama, "Hart's War," when Edward Norton dropped out. Farrell got a whopping $2.5 million for the role. From the studio's side, that's called panic pay.

A movie can't do without faces; a TV drama or comedy can't do without words. Network execs have been ordering extra episodes of shows like "Law & Order," to be aired next fall in the event of a strike. Before its contract expires on May 1, the Writers Guild of America West, led by writer-producer John Wells ("ER," "The West Wing"), is likely to demand pricier formulas for residuals from U.S. TV shows sold in foreign markets and syndicated on cable, as well as an end to the "possessory" credits routinely given to movie directors and producers ("A Martin Scorsese Picture," "A Jerry Bruckheimer Production") but rarely to writers. Most observers think that the possessory credit is both ludicrous — why get two citations for the same job? — and irrevocable. Writers will probably have to settle for boring things like more money.

In TV, the writer-producer is king; a David E. Kelley series speaks with his voice. In film, the writer is a stenographer fleshing out the notions of producers and directors. And like SAG, the WGA is a union with a few overworked millionaires and a lot of underemployed hopefuls. The difference between a strike and no strike is that in a strike, both groups will be out of work.

Could this financial fissure lead to rifts in the guilds? The SAG commercials strike suggests otherwise: Stars like Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey and Nicolas Cage put big bucks in the union's treasure chest and the spotlight of glamour on the little people. That doesn't mean the rank and file is itching for more picket-line time. "The actors just went through the longest strike in their history," says Ira Shepherd, who was lead negotiator for the advertisers. "That will have a moderating effect on their desire to do it again next year."

Just don't underestimate a movie worker's love for drama, danger, social action. "A Hollywood guild is like the Russian army," says WGA secretary-treasurer Mike Mahern. "It's underestimated because it's unwieldy and seemingly disorganized. But ask Hitler or Napoleon about the power of the Russian army." So watch out for a big battle. "Pearl Harbor" might not be the only Hollywood war drama next summer.

— Reported by Jess Cagle and Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles