Who’s Winning?

A nutshell update on the writers’ strike.

Here’s the story: The writers seem to be keeping up their momentum, and talent from Jason Alexander to Ray Romano to Holly Hunter to Patricia Heaton is turning out to support them. The question is: How stiff is their resolve?

Show runners—those rich writer-producers—caught the studios off guard by refusing to cross lines. At first the studios assumed the writers would work without a contract. Then they assumed they’d performing nonwriting duties on their shows during a strike. Wrong on both counts.

Many show runners really, really want to do the work because these shows are their babies. But by refusing to work at all, they’ve shut down shows like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy faster than the studios expected. The studios may have stockpiled scripts, but if just anyone could put these shows together, they wouldn’t be shelling out the big bucks to the show runners in the first place.

Now the show runners are getting threat letters from the studios and clearly, some are getting plenty nervous. Rather than vowing to fight until the bitter end, they’re hoping they can return to work not when the two sides resolve their enormous differences, but simply if they resume bargaining. So far, nothing’s scheduled, though there’s a widespread belief that the two sides will called back to the table next week. “Everyone seems to feel that next week, it’s do or die,” says a very prominent producer.

If there’s no resolution, can the writers hold out? A representative of many show runners says they’re up for it now, in the initial wave of excitement. But how long will they keep picketing, he asks, when the weather gets cold (for Los Angeles), it rains, the holidays roll around, and there’s no end in sight? He predicts they’ll crumble like biscotti in a latte. (Would you want to be repped by this guy?)

The writers’ stamina may be an open question, but the networks cannot be as sanguine as the bosses pretend. Even if the networks see this as an opportunity to dump failing shows and unproductive deals, they are taking an enormous risk. They are looking at a potentially permanent loss of audience, not to mention falling revenues when advertisers don’t pay for commercials during repeats and bad reality programming, plus a pilot season made up of worse dreck than last time. If ever there was an example of mutually assured destruction, this strike would appear to be it.

A note: Your Hollywoodland correspondent is not going on strike but must take a break for a week or two. More later. (link)

Nov. 1, 2007

Writers on a picket line outside Warner Bros. Studios

Strike! As you’ve no doubt heard, film and television writers have joined the picket lines. At first, many weren’t sure what to do once they got there. But eventually, they seemed to get the hang of it.

Among the celebrities who turned up to support them were: James L. Brooks, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. In New York, John Oliver from The Daily Show was there explaining that writers must demand a share of Internet revenue now. A source at NBC denied that The Office was shut down, as rumored, but what might have been shot isn’t clear because Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, and other talent didn’t show up for work. CBS’s Cane was said to be shut down, but the network probably isn’t too upset about that.

As reported elsewhere, negotiations collapsed Sunday night after a long day of talks. It’s hard to say whether both sides were in good faith or just trying to make it look that way. It seems that the writers made some concessions, but the studios wouldn’t budge on the key issue: compensation for work that appears via the Internet or new technologies.

Nick Counter of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was predicting a strike that lasts for months yesterday, saying the writers appear determined to stay off the job until the Screen Actors Guild negotiates this summer.

Can that be taken seriously? The studios can talk about shooting movies based on locked scripts, but that seems fanciful. Movies go through reshoots routinely; it’s hard to believe studios want to start filming hundred-million-dollar pictures without the ability to fix scenes that aren’t working.

The networks can talk all they want to about stockpiling material. They can’t keep scripted series on the air for that long. Going to reruns and reality shows seems a good way to drive viewers away, perhaps forever.

On the other hand, the networks may be screwed, anyway. They’re having a lousy fall—a lot of expensive shows from Viva Laughlin to Bionic Woman, and no breakout hit. Now may be as good a time as any for them to cut their losses with a particle of an excuse about how the shows would have built audiences if it hadn’t been for the strike. It just doesn’t seem like a long-term solution to their admittedly serious problems.

Of course, the studios might be able to hold out longer than the writers. J.J. Abrams is about to start directing Star Trek. He was on the picket lines yesterday and said he’ll direct but not write. For a guy who seems to write in his sleep, that would seem to present a challenge. This is his second shot at directing a big feature film, and it’s a potential kickoff to a franchise. Can he really resist the desire to give it his best shot?

Television show runners, those well-remunerated producer-writers, are also in a bind. They are being told by the guild to turn in copies of scripts by Thursday to ensure that those who violate the terms of the strike—i.e., those who write—can be punished. Meanwhile, the studios are warning them not to turn over the scripts to any third parties.

Contractually, they are obligated to do producing duties. The problem is that the line between producing and writing isn’t clear. A couple of show runners have gone on the record saying that they’ll do nothing at all, risking legal action from the studios. Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, sent around an e-mail that read, “I obviously will not write on my shows. But I also will not edit, I will not cast, I will not look at location photos, I will not get on the phone with the network and studio, I will not prep directors, I will not review mixes. … I can’t in good conscience fight these bastards with one hand, while operating an Avid with the other. I am on strike and I am not working for them. PERIOD.”

Not many will go that far, but dozens of other show runners, including those from Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty, Heroes, Reaper, and The Office, signed an ad in Variety titled, “Pencils Down Means Pencils Down,” expressing their intention to enforce the strike vigorously. Whether they stick to that resolve should have a lot to do with when the strike ends, and how. (link)

Nov. 1, 2007

Bee Movie

Buzzkill: At the beginning of Bee Movie, it’s stated that according to the laws of science, bees should not be able to fly. According to the laws of science, Bee Movie should not be able to fly, either. But it’s tracking to open somewhere around $40 million this weekend.

We do not pretend to be a critic but still feel qualified to state that Bee Movie is not very good. Especially considering the talent involved and the money spent—and we have no idea how much that is. The story is not especially involving for kids: An enterprising bee finds that humans take honey from bees and goes to court. And the promise of sophisticated Seinfeld humor goes unfulfilled.

Jerry Seinfeld has been ubiquitous promoting this movie. At the premiere, he talked about his joy at getting Ray Liotta into the film. In an interview, he talked about riffing with Chris Rock and putting that into the movie. Neither is in the movie for long—or for any reason that advances the plot. Perhaps all that spontaneity is why Bee Movie turned into what Variety called “a zig-zagging, back-of-the-envelope story that’s short on surprise and originality.”

Wall Street analyst Rich Greenfield has downgraded DreamWorks Animation stock from “buy” to “neutral” based on concern that the film won’t play as well as many expect. It’s worth bearing in mind that while the Shrek movies play great overseas, Seinfeld is not a big international draw.

Some huge Hollywood players have twisted themselves into a pretzel in service of this film. Admittedly, we write now with the wisdom of hindsight, but it’s hard to imagine that Bee Movie looked compelling based on the script. DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg has a tendency to become besotted with certain talents—Warren Beatty on Dick Tracy, for example—and to lose his way. As with Dick Tracy, Katzenberg and his associates at Paramount, which is distributing the film, seem determined to spend their way to a certain gross. You can scarcely rest your eyes anywhere at this point without seeing Bee Movie material.

Katzenberg has to be on edge about this movie’s performance—which may explain why he got into that spat with the servers at the Four Seasons.

Meanwhile, NBC has turned over its network, down to its logo, to the project. It’s kind of surprising that NBC—which is part of NBC Universal—is lending itself so extravagantly to promoting another studio’s film. Even some who work on Bee Movie are wondering why it happened, though an executive associated with the film said he understands why. The network is in such bad shape, he says, that getting the biggest star in the recent history of NBC on the air naturally seemed like a good idea. Seinfeld made an appearance on 30 Rock, but that’s a one-off. The interstitial bits promoting the movie would have been great if they’d worked. But they didn’t. “What they were selling is Jerry as an old friend that you haven’t seen in a long time,” says the executive associated with the film. “The problem is, Jerry is a rich, arrogant guy who—without Larry David—you really don’t want in your living room.”

To add insult to injury, NBC coughed up money for the rights to air the movie, which it would not normally have considered buying. And it paid for the promotions, too. A network insider lamented that Katzenberg stuck it to NBC with the expensive TV show, Father of the Pride, “and he’s done it again.”

No doubt NBC did this deal in part because it figured if Seinfeld ever intends to do another series, he’ll head for home. But can he go home again? One can’t help but reflect that the Seinfeld show benefited from a strong ensemble that included Michael Richards, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jason Alexander. And yes, there was a minor talent named Larry David in the mix. So, did Seinfeld make an essential contribution, other than his name? Bee Movie makes one wonder. (link)

Oct. 30, 2007

Truckin’:Pretty much everyone in Hollywood is watching breathlessly to see if this strike is going to happen when the Writers Guild contract expires at midnight on Halloween. Probably not.

Yesterday’s news that the Teamsters are encouraging members not to cross picket lines has been greeted with great joy by some writers. On his blog, artfulwriter.com, Craig Mazin writes: “The Teamsters can shut a company down faster and more completely than any other union in town.”

The Teamsters represent 4,000 drivers, location managers, scouts, and casting directors. Their local can’t formally back a strike but secretary-treasurer Leo Reed reminded members that they cannot be penalized for refusing to cross a line. “As for me, I will not cross a picket line … because I firmly believe that Teamsters don’t cross picket lines,” he wrote, adding, “Federal law protects you if you choose [to cross the lines]. Remember, I firmly believe that Teamsters do not cross picket lines!”

Got that?

The producers are making moves to set up alternative pickup and drop-off sites where drivers go without having to cross a line. But that sounds unwieldy.

Meanwhile, the federal mediator on the scene is Juan Carlos Gonzales. Apparently he has a masters in psychology and, what may be more useful, a black belt in aikido.

The guild has called a big meeting for its members on Thursday, so it seems clear the writers won’t go out before then. They are likely to resume talks on Friday, bringing their demands backed by a membership that seems energized by the Teamsters. The producers will have to figure out how to respond. (link)

Oct. 29, 2007

Strike Skit: Hollywood writers haven’t gone on strike yet, though the rhetoric is running very hot. Writers Guild members Gregg Rossen and Bryan Sawyer have put together a short video depicting the future if the sides don’t resolve things before the contract expires on Oct. 31 and the strike happens. (Note that contrary to the introduction to this little film, the writers will not necessarily drop their pencils on Nov. 1. But they will if the guild says so.) Here’s the link to the video, which documents the next career moves of various screenwriters, including Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) and Douglas Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama). (link)

Oct. 25, 2007

Tom Cruise

Bad Orgones: The first reviews for Lions for Lambs, the Redford-Cruise-Streep collaboration, are coming in, and they are not good.

The movie was a hot ticket at a London film festival this week, but the Times of London derided its “almost autistic lack of personality.” Variety called it “talky.” We suspect it costs reviewers some anguish to smite Robert Redford, but in the early going, Lions for Lambs is scoring a weak 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is not surprising considering the setup of the movie: Tom Cruise as a slick senator tries to sell a skeptical journalist (Meryl Streep) on a war strategy that is failing as he speaks. Robert Redford is an earnest college professor who tries to inspire an uninvolved student. Two of Redford’s former students, having enlisted, try to survive the failing strategy in Afghanistan. All three vignettes involve a great deal of talking.

Even if Lions for Lambs were the greatest movie ever, it would face tough sledding in today’s marketplace. The public is lining up to see the football comedy The Game Plan and recoiling from a spate of serious and rather depressing films, a number of which have to do with the war on terror.

Lions for Lambs is in for a lot of scrutiny, not just because of its star cast but because it’s the first film released under the United Artists banner since Tom Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, took over. And it wasn’t a bad idea. Cruise was coming off couch-jumping and Matt Lauer-scolding. Allying himself with Redford and Streep could have been good. Cruise’s eagerness placed him in an unusual role: performing in and producing a topical, political film. He doesn’t seem entirely at ease: Variety noted that he “didn’t exactly morph into Tim Robbins” during a question-and-answer session after a New York-area screening last week, concluding that the actor “hadn’t decided exactly what positions to stake out and was using the event as a rehearsal for his views.”

But back to business. The film’s lack of commercial appeal wouldn’t be a problem if the movie were generating reviews that would give it Oscar fuel. But it isn’t, and UA’s got two more tough-to-market movies coming down the pipeline. Up next is Valkyrie, in which Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a German icon who tried to assassinate Hitler. You might recall that the Germans—hostile to Scientology—wouldn’t allow filming in the Bendlerblock, where Stauffenberg was executed. When the government relented, footage shot there was mysteriously damaged in the lab and had to be reshot.

Valkyrie is a period piece with a downer ending, but at least it’s directed by Bryan Singer, who has The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men to his credit. He might be able to make a movie that has some box office appeal, though whether the public is prepared to swallow Cruise in a Nazi uniform with an eye patch is obviously a looming question. (One industry veteran sniped that the photo from the production makes Cruise look like one of the Village People.)

The third movie coming from UA is Oliver Stone’s take on the My Lai massacre. No kidding. At least they cast Bruce Willis instead of Mel Gibson, who was considered at one point.

Cruise has clearly steered away from the conventional wisdom that he should do career repair with an action movie or romantic comedy. And he was among the canniest of stars for many years, so maybe he knows what’s best for him. But if Cruise is reinventing himself as an actor in and producer of “quality” movies, that may not be compatible with reviving United Artists. Given the cost of doing such risky business, most industry observers doubt that mission would be possible even if Cruise and Wagner were trying to make popcorn movies instead of chasing an adult audience that is frequently inclined to wait for the DVD. (link)

Oct. 22, 2007

Ryan Gosling

Bye- Bye: A strong source tells us that things blew up badly with in The Lovely Bones, the Peter Jackson-directed film based on the Alice Sebold novel. Recall that in May, DreamWorks prevailed in a bidding war by offering a very rich deal to make this film, which tells the story of a child who is raped and murdered. Gosling is out in the role of the child’s father, and Mark Wahlberg slid in over the weekend just hours before shooting was set to begin. And apparently, the break with Gosling may lead to litigation, though it’s still unclear what the fight was about. Sure seems that DreamWorks has been hitting a few speed bumps lately. The first movie under its own label was The Heartbreak Kid. Things We Lost in the Fire got incinerated over the weekend, opening to $1.6 million. And Kite Runner has been delayed because it put its child stars in danger in Afghanistan. Schadenfreude, Mr. Grey?

This would also seem like worrisome timing for Gosling, who got an Oscar nomination for his role in Half Nelson and is getting a fair bit of praise for Lars and the Real Girl. If he’s managed to tick off Peter Jackson and DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg simultaneously, that could not be considered a good career move. ( link)

Oct. 17, 2007

George Clooney

Curious George: We admit that we were a little disappointed when Michael Clayton opened to a weak $10 million and fourth place last weekend. The critics were gaga about Michael Clayton, though Variety’s Brian Lowry was astute enough to peg it is as a “difficult-to-market” film.

We all know that grown-ups are not usually in haste to go to theaters to help movies chalk up a big opening weekend, but many thought Michael Clayton might do better. We’ve also heard a lot of you grown-ups complaining about a lack of grown-up films, or a lack of good ones, and this isn’t going to help.

Since Michael Clayton is fairly crackling entertainment, we asked around to see why Hollywood thought the movie failed to connect with audiences. A number of theories emerged:

  1. It’sClooney. Clooney is very popular in Hollywood, but he cannot be counted on to open a movie. It’s happened for Ocean’s 11-12-13, but when you’re in a movie with Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, you don’t get bragging rights. There was The Perfect Storm, but that kind of co-starred the wave. “George has made a series of bad decisions as a movie star,” says a top producer. “Not as an actor, not as an artist, but as a movie star.” Clooney has given a nod to fans with the Ocean’s series, he continues, but he doesn’t give them a lot of gratification. “George has made calculated decisions about what he wants, not what the audience wants,” this producer concludes. As it turns out, you can make bad decisions as a movie star and still win Oscars and have a villa in Italy.
  2. It’s not Clooney, it’s the marketing. Who can be counted on to open a movie these days? Maybe Will Smith. Maybe Adam Sandler in a comedy. “There ain’t a whole lot of ‘em,” says a former studio chairman. The days are gone when you could book Julia Roberts into Dying Young—”a movie that nobody wants to see”—and watch the audience line up. So, if you can’t count on selling the star, he says, you’d better sell an idea. That didn’t happen with Michael Clayton. “When you look at the marketing, you don’t know what it’s about,” he says. To him, that’s understandable because Michael Clayton is “a really well-executed movie that’s not about anything.” But a good marketer shouldn’t let that stand in the way. Make it look like it’s about something. And create a campaign that hints the movie is, in fact, pretty entertaining. “It doesn’t look like it’s really different from In the Valley of Elah,” this observer says. “I don’t mean to piss on that movie, but there’s 50 of ‘em like that right now. I’m tired of death and destruction.” Which leads to the next theory:
  3. All at once, there are too damn many grown-up movies. “A lot of movies are going after the same audience,” says a studio chief. The Kingdom; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; 3:10 to Yuma; Into the Wild; Darjeeling Limited; Lust, Caution; Eastern Promises … and many more to come. “It’s a tough market,” the studio chief continues. “If you don’t have a defined perspective, you’re just one of the many.” He also argues that Michael Clayton should have been released on fewer screens. The movie is sophisticated and plays pretty urban, he explains, so putting it out on 2,511 screens put it in a lot of places where it wasn’t going to rack up much business. “If it had gone out on 1,500 screens and it did $10 million, you’d say, ‘Hey, it did pretty well,’ ” he says. (link)

Oct. 11, 2007

Drowning their pens: No one is dragged more reluctantly into covering the industry’s labor problems than your Hollywoodland correspondent. But since the writers are rattling the saber very loudly, here’s a quick and simple look at the situation.

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation 

The writers feel they’ve gotten screwed on DVD revenues and don’t want to repeat that experience. They are attacking on numerous fronts—trying to organize reality-show staff, demanding a federal rule requiring networks to disclose when advertisers pay to have their products woven into television shows. But this is really about getting a piece of the revenue from new media, whatever that new media may be.

The networks and studios say they don’t know how the business is going to work at this point or even whether anything resembling life as they know it can continue in the new-media world. They offered to do a study of this mysterious new media. When the writers didn’t go for it, the producers came up with another idea: doing in the long-standing residuals system, under which writers get paid for repeat airings of their work. In other words, give up your puppy, or we’ll kill your baby.

Now, the writers seem poised to strike—which wasn’t supposed to happen just yet. Yes, their contract is finished this month, but they were going to work under their old deal until June, when the actors and directors guilds are supposed to negotiate new contracts. The networks, thinking they still had some time, have been stockpiling new shows and reality series. The studios have been working toward getting movies started by March on the assumption that they’d be able to finish while the writers were still around.

But the writers figured out a couple of things. One, the directors look like they’re going to cut their own deal early, which they’ve done before, and the supposedly perfect end-of-June storm will be downgraded. Two, what’s the point of letting the enemy stock the larder? So, the writers may walk as early as the beginning of November. Certainly they’re talking a tough game, despite great trepidation among many of the rank and file.

There seems to be some debate as to which will have a tougher time if the writers go—the networks or the film studios. The movie folks are either a little bit or very pregnant with pictures and would have to expensively put them on hold or expensively pull the plug if no writers are around. The networks may be able to stockpile reality programming but don’t want to drive viewers away in droves with all that much slop. They’re scratching for primetime ideas—NBC, for example, is said to be looking at reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm or airing the original British version of The Office. (link)