The Strike Zone

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You've heard the rumblings. Hollywood is on the brink of a massive shutdown by writers' and actors' strikes. The ripple effect would cost Los Angeles nearly $2 billion a month in lost revenue. Even more alarming to the rest of the world, it could totally screw up next fall's TV season, and lots of less-than-perfect film scripts (yes, even less perfect than usual) have been rushed into production. This week the Writers Guild of America is due back at the bargaining table with producers, but there's a problem: studios used to be mom-and-pop shops, and avuncular mogul Lew Wasserman played peacemaker with unions. Today's studios are owned by conglomerates that can more easily withstand (and may even favor) a production slowdown. It's hard to keep up without a scorecard. Here's yours:

What happens if the writers strike? The current contract between the W.G.A. (made up of 11,000 movie and TV scribes) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (a consortium of major studios with a negotiating team that includes Disney's Robert Iger and DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg), expires May 1. During a strike, cameras could keep rolling on completed movie scripts. TV too would be fine--for now. The rest of this season's comedies and dramas have been shot, while news and reality shows would be exempt. But even though networks have stockpiled some shows, be prepared for a fall season heavy on newsmagazines, Survivor clones, TV movies (now being shot and banked) and recycled theatrical releases.

Why do writers feel so wronged? W.G.A. members enjoyed a median income of $84,000 in 2000, so they can't plead poverty. But writers say their professional lives are short (finding TV work is tough after 40). They also feel they deserve to swim in studios' new revenue streams like foreign markets and the Internet. W.G.A. president (and ER executive producer) John Wells wants to increase old "bargain basement" residuals (the fees paid for subsequent use of a TV show or movie). And, arguing that it minimizes their contributions, movie writers are also asking studios to reduce the possessory ("a film by") credits that directors regularly get. But the real sticking points are residuals for overseas sales, Internet, videos and DVDs.

If the writers strike, will the actors go with them? Not necessarily. If the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, weary from a long strike against advertisers last year, reach new residual agreements with producers by the time their contracts expire on June 30, actors can still work on movies that are already written. sag president William Daniels would support waivers for independent productions during a strike. Note to actors and writers: If your union is picketing, any work for a major U.S. studio (even overseas) would be scab labor.

How is Hollywood preparing for a strike? In addition to reality and news shows, you'll still see new episodes of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, thanks to a deal struck with the W.G.A. Leno and Letterman may work out exemptions too. Fox has already shot 13 episodes of its new fall series When I Grow Up. Movie production is up 60% from this time last year; Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts are making back-to-back movies, Gwyneth Paltrow will have four films in the can before stumbling, sleep-deprived and circle-eyed, onto the picket line. And others, like Will & Grace's Eric McCormack, are headed to Broadway.

What's the prognosis? At the moment, writers seem very likely to strike. An actors' walkout is less certain. All sides have a great deal to lose. Studio heads wouldn't mind seeing production costs disappear for a while, but they'd lose crucial syndication money later. The W.G.A.'s Wells is tough, but even he would like to see his production of White Oleander (a movie version of the Janet Fitch novel) get off the ground. A few well-paid TV writers are looking forward to time off, but even they worry. "I'm thinking of going to Paris if there's a strike," says one scribe. "That would be nice for a couple of months. After that, it could get painful." Painful? Just wait for those TV movies.