Hanky Panky

Tom Hanks doesn't take his shades off for less than $20m a movie. So why is he leading an actor's strike that could close down Hollywood? Because he wants more money, stupid
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The Independent Culture

As headlines go, it sounds pretty far-fetched: "Movie stars strike for better pay, conditions." And yet, to judge by the panicked behaviour of Hollywood executives - who are furiously trying to shoehorn projects into production while there is still time - the strike is as good as a fait accompli.

As headlines go, it sounds pretty far-fetched: "Movie stars strike for better pay, conditions." And yet, to judge by the panicked behaviour of Hollywood executives - who are furiously trying to shoehorn projects into production while there is still time - the strike is as good as a fait accompli.

What the suits at the studios are afraid of is that the Screen Actors Guild, the union which represents everyone from Hollywood's busiest megastars to the most chronically under-employed bit-players, will call out its members when its contract with the industry comes up for renewal next July. Worse, there could even be a double whammy, since the unionised members of the Writers' Guild of America will be negotiating their new contract at almost exactly the same time; the current agreement with the screenwriters ends in May.

However strong the concrete grounds for fearing a strike, the very idea of an industry shutdown has got the executives at Disney, Warner Bros, MGM and the other big studios absolutely spooked. Network television might be able to bluff its way through with a diet of sensationalist reality shows that require the services of neither actors nor writers, but a film producer caught in the same bind has absolutely nowhere to turn - except the black despair of an empty work-slate.

What's more, big-name actors have a nasty habit of ganging up on studio executives at times like this to defend their less privileged colleagues. Who would want to have Paul Newman, Kevin Spacey, Susan Sarandon and Tom Hanks popping up at rallies across the country to denounce the bosses as the devil incarnate? As Newman said: "It takes high-profile performers to bring attention to this labour dispute, and that is why we're here." And as Hanks recently told a crowd in LA: "Actors bring life to words on a printed page." Where would the studios be without them?

And so there is panic. According to near-daily reports in Variety and other trade papers, the industry has gone into a frenzy, with writers pumping out scripts, actors squeezing every last hour out of their work schedules, and producers green-lighting scripts that look ready to go into production with scant regard for quality.

Trusted studio producers, meanwhile, are working their hearts out: Scott Rudin, the man who brought us Sister Act, Clueless, The Truman Show and Angela's Ashes, is said to be trying to mount as many as five productions before 15 March - a hectic schedule to say the least. Other executives appear to be holding off on high-profile movies until 2002 to ensure that any stoppage does not cause tens of millions of dollars to be flushed down the drain. Columbia has postponed its much heralded Spiderman, for example, although the studio denies its decision is to do with fear of a strike.

So, as Michael Caine might say, what's it all about?

Actually, the studios' fears are rooted less in the prospect of next year's strikes than in the reality of a current strike. Since 1 May, the Screen Actors Guild and its sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, have been playing hardball with the makers of adverts and music videos, saying it is time they were compensated for the growing market in cable and other new media outlets.

The actors want to be paid royalties for repeat showings, not just the flat fee they currently receive. Because of the rise of cable and the relative decline of network broadcasting, the current system has caused their earnings to fall over the past decade.

The advertisers, however, have refused to listen to strikers' demands, believing they can get by on non-union labour for as long as it takes to get SAG and Aftra to back down. They haven't been able to make as many adverts, and quality has suffered.

So far neither side has blinked, but the dispute has grown appreciably nastier. Over the summer, Liz Hurley was told her Hollywood career could be over because she made a non-union Estée Lauder advert. Earlier this week, a SAG delegation, including the Saturday Night Live comic Rob Schneider, staged a mass sit-down in front of Proctor and Gamble's world headquarters in Cincinnati and announced a boycott of Crest toothpaste and other products because the company was making non-union adverts.

At the same time, a clutch of notables, including Susan Sarandon and F Murray Abraham, cheered on a union rally in New York. Nicolas Cage has donated $200,000 to the cause, and Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt $100,000 apiece. And more stars are joining the bandwagon all the time. "I have been a member of the Screen Actors Guild for 20 years," Cage said. "The union has stood by me and I stand by it."

His words were echoed by Helen Hunt: "Like everyone else, people who have devoted their lives to the craft of acting need to pay their rent and buy groceries," she said. "It feels only right to show my support."

Film executives looking at the current dispute see the same sorts of issues threatening to surface next year - which explains why they are so pessimistic about the outcome of the contract negotiations. The Writers' Guild has indicated it is concerned about compensation in cable and foreign markets - areas that have grown much bigger, and vastly more complex, in recent years. SAG has yet to lay out a list of potential problem areas, but it doesn't take a soothsayer to realise the actors are going to be concerned about the same sorts of things. And that's not even mentioning the small matter of the Net and the anticipated explosion of online entertainment.

Generally, there is an attitude that at a time of increasing production and greater capital investment there should be room for adequate recognition of the writers and actors involved. The studios, however, don't see it that way. Most of them are by now the film-making arms of giant multinational conglomerates; most of them are loss leaders for their parent companies; and most are frantically trying to rein in production costs to offset their spiralling marketing budgets.

So is a strike inevitable? Not necessarily. The guilds are actually making a great show of indignation, complaining that the studios are banking on a fight when no negotiations have even started yet. "Talk of a strike is extremely premature, misplaced and destructive," charged Greg Krizman of the Actors Guild. "The studios need to be careful about creating such a negative atmosphere that meaningful negotiation cannot take place."

His colleague from the Writers' Guild, executive director Sheryl Rhoden, largely concurred: "If the studios took as much time focusing on conducting a successful negotiation as they have on preparing for a strike, the chances of that successful negotiation would be much higher."

Nobody in the industry is taking chances, however. Most of them remember the last big disruption by writers in 1988, when the autumn line-up on network television was delayed by several weeks and the market for feature film scripts went bananas - first drying up and then becoming glutted with all the speculative projects writers had come up while idle.

Steve Beschloss, a screenwriter, said he was getting regular calls from his manager begging him to speed up his work on a political thriller he is writing. "He is pushing me, pushing me. 'Please try to finish by the end of the year. That at least gives us a window to sell the thing'," he recounted.

How much sympathy should actors and writers get? After all, the big stars are rolling in money, and the struggling part-timers at the bottom are either busy working other jobs or sleeping in late and working out. But the big stars are clear on this point: everyone is in this together, and but for the grace of God they would all be waiting tables and struggling to make ends meet.

"I think that has been a problem. 'Oh, actors are spoiled silly, they don't need anything'," Susan Sarandon commented recently. "But people don't realise how many struggling people are trying to get by. We're who make up America, not corporate America.''

Various scenarios present themselves. One is that there is no strike, and executives are left with a lot of egg on their faces - and a lot of badly produced movies to defend. Another is that the strikes become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that by the third quarter of next year, production halts.

And then what? Who will back down first? And what will we see at the cinemas? It would be nice to fantasise about America's multiplexes, deprived of asteroid movies and sex comedies, resorting to Renoir, Bergman and Antonioni. And even nicer to fantasise about people watching such films.

More likely, however, is that films currently in production will be stretched more thinly. Foreign-language movies might enjoy a little more visibility, and there could be a few classic revivals (a director's cut of The Exorcist is currently doing brisk business in the United States), but most of all there could be a royal opportunity for British and other English-language films, especially if they tune into mainstream commercial sensibilities.

So, all you writers of Essex-based gangster movies out there - this could be your big moment!