The Big Gun

Is American Idol crippling the writers’ strike?

Writers on strike

Reality bites: If you’ve followed the Writers Guild strike at all, you know that talks between the studios and the writers collapsed Friday and that the rhetoric is, once again, vituperative. We saw a picketer in front of Sony Pictures with a sign addressed to Nick Counter of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that read, “Hey Nick, Count This,” illustrated by a picture of a hand with middle digit extended.

At this point, everyone’s convinced that the studios are in it for the long haul. It appears that they are not interested, and possibly never were, in negotiating with the writers. Some studios may be less hawkish than others, but the more hawkish are in control.

The fact that NBC is refunding money to advertisers because of bad ratings—which weren’t a result of the strike—does drive home the point that the networks are watching their audience disintegrate. And taking a break from popular shows like The Office, while instead programming stuff like American Gladiators and repeats of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (which had been relegated to the USA Network) probably won’t improve the situation.

Still, several of the networks and studios have reasons to keep this thing going. Fox has American Idol in the on-deck circle and can afford to play hardball, as Rupert Murdoch has been known to do in fights with unions. Warner doesn’t have a TV network to worry about, and the strike gives it a chance to offload some deals—perhaps starting with the very expensive and unproductive one with J.J. Abrams. One network source even speculates that Warner and CBS might use the strike as a reason to cut their losses and fold the CW—though a CBS executive scoffed at that notion.

Meanwhile, the order of things is shifting. The winter gathering of the Television Critics Association, at which networks promote their new wares, has been called off. The May upfronts, that lavish ritual during which networks woo advertisers, are questionable.

It seems clear that the networks and studios, at this point, are unwilling to give anything that could be called a victory to the Writers Guild. The betting is that they’ll negotiate with the more accommodating Directors Guild in January, make a deal that the writers may not find acceptable, and then confront the Screen Actors Guild, who will have had some time to contemplate the long winter of the starved-out writers.

Where this will finally leave the business is hardly clear. At this point it seems that if the network business really is the Titanic, everyone is going down with the ship. (link)

Dec. 5, 2007

Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada and Zekiria Ebrahimi

Whew: If you read Monday’s New York Times story on the kids from the Kite Runner movie, you might have heaved a sigh of relief right along with the folks at Paramount.

“The ‘Kite Runner’ boys are safely out of Kabul,” the story began. “After months of worrying and diplomatic wrangling from half a world away, the movie studio that is releasing the tale of childhood betrayal, ethnic tension and sexual predation in Afghanistan has whisked to safety four young actors. They were feared to be vulnerable to reprisal because of the film’s depiction of a culturally inflammatory rape scene.”

Yes, these boys—each accompanied by one guardian—had arrived in the United Arab Emirates in the dark of night. “I can’t really tell you what a weight came off when they landed safely,” Megan Colligan, a Paramount marketing executive, told the Times.

Colligan may feel better, but another source involved in the Paramount effort doesn’t. “No matter how you look at it, their families are going to be split—maybe temporarily or long-term,” he says. That’s a fairy-tale ending?

Bear in mind that the problem arose, according to one of the child stars and his father, because the studio misled the children about the nature of the project. The boys—Afghan schoolchildren—were selected by director Marc Forster and his associates in their quest for authenticity. After the filmmakers got most of what they wanted on film (they had to use a body double for one sequence because the child refused to play the scene as requested), concern arose that the boys might be in real-life danger. The plan now is to keep them in an undisclosed location in the United Arab Emirates until the end of the academic year, at which time their families will decide whether it’s safe for them to return to Kabul.

The studio is still jumping through hoops—apparently with the help of sympathetic congressman Tom Lantos—to get the kids visas for a visit to the United States. The studio was disappointed that the kids couldn’t get to this week’s premiere—but there’s always time for plenty of press whenever they get pried loose. “It’d be great to give them an opportunity to walk onto the stage and feel appreciated for the movie that they made,” Colligan said.

Of course, as our source on the studio’s team points out, it’s quite possible that once the children get their feet on American soil, they’ll do what many in their position might do: seek asylum. If that’s granted, this source says, “The studio doesn’t pay anything and the American taxpayer has to cover everything.” Family members at home would not be in a position to apply, so the split would seem to be indefinite.

When this idea was raised within the studio, our source says, it was met with a shrug. Asked about the issue, producer Rebecca Yeldham told us that the question of seeking asylum “has never come up in our dialogue with the families.” And have the children shared any thoughts on being separated from their families for months, if not longer? Yeldham said she talked to the children last week and found that “all four boys were so happy—so enthusiastic and very excited to be where they are.”

No doubt the Kite Runner boys aren’t the only kids who might be excited and enthusiastic over a chance to be feted by a Hollywood studio, presumably with a little Disneyland thrown in.

And the image of happy, smiling boys might just warm the hearts of Academy Awards voters, too. (link)

Nov. 30, 2007

George Clooney

Greetings: Hollywoodland has not been on strike but on hiatus. And here we are, back to the grind while the writers are still out. Attempting to read the tea leaves at this point defeats us, but a question has come to mind: Where is Hollywood’s A-list movie talent?

The writers have flooded the Internet with videos at Web sites from YouTube to United Hollywood to LateShowWritersOnStrike.com, and those videos are helping them win the public-relations war. Many actors have appeared in the videos, including Holly Hunter, Sandra Oh, a gaggle of Desperate Housewives, Ed Asner, and Josh Brolin. That’s a lot of television stars—feeling the pain because their shows are shut down.

But where are the movie stars? OK, you get Harvey Keitel, William H. Macy (married to a television star), and inevitably Susan Sarandon, but what about Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, and Johnny Depp, who have had movies canceled because of the strike? Where’s the one you’d most expect to see, George Clooney, who happens to be a Writers Guild member?

Clooney hasn’t been entirely invisible, in that, if you read the trades closely, you might know he gave $25,000 to the Actors Fund in a donation earmarked to help those affected by the strike. And he said he is encouraging others to donate, too. But that’s as far as it’s gone. A powerful producer observes that the top movie talent is “not touching [the strike] with a 10-foot pole.”

Why? “They don’t want things to change,” says a former studio president. “They have the greatest deal in town. Why hurt the golden goose?” Movies haven’t been hit as hard as television shows, he adds, so the movie stars are not really feeling it yet.

An agent who represents A-list talent agrees. “Most movie stars aren’t affected by any of this,” he says. “And for them, it’s like, ‘No matter what you get [out of the fight], it doesn’t really benefit me.’ ” This agent paused to admire the adroitness of the Clooney contribution—showing he cares without actually putting himself out front and center. “That was smart,” he says.

Despite this display of cynicism, the agent doesn’t think the absence of the big stars matters much. “I don’t think movie stars’ picketing for any cause is effective,” he says. “I even think they hurt political candidates.” (link)