LA faces meltdown as Hollywood strike bites

No red carpet, no Keira or Angelina, no best-dressed/worst-dressed lists, no goody bags, no limo rides, no parties and no champagne. Sunday’s lacklustre Golden Globe awards will sound an alarm across Los Angeles: the show does not go on.

Hollywood is on strike and it is beginning to hurt the city built around the entertainment industry. People are out of work, the local economy is suffering and the biggest blow to both revenue and prestige could be yet to come — the cancellation of the Oscars.

The writers’ union that is leading the strike said it would not back down even if it meant that the Academy Awards would suffer the same fate as the Globes. The cost to the city would be $130-million, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, with tens of millions more wiped off advertising revenues.

Usually one of the most glamorous events in the showbusiness calendar, the Globes at the Beverly Hills Hotel will be reduced to no more than a one-hour press conference in which the winners’ names will be read out. The losses incurred by caterers, hairdressers, hotels, jewellers, limousine firms, party planners, stylists and other support workers are estimated at $70-million to $80-million.

The 11-week writers’ dispute is turning nasty as it slowly but surely strangles artistic and economic activity beneath the iconic Hollywood sign. The writers, an unlikely vanguard for a revival in America’s trade union movement, are demanding a say in future internet distribution deals and a percentage of any revenues gained when their work is streamed or downloaded. Crucially, they have the support of the actors, whose refusal to cross the Globes’ picketline ensures a no-show from nominees including the British contenders Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Julie Christie and Helena Bonham Carter.

On the opposite side are the producers and studios such as Disney, Fox, Paramount and Warner Brothers. Wary of being locked into a deal on hugely unpredictable new media, they are blaming the writers for intransigence. “It feels like the nerdiest, ugliest, meanest kids in the high school are trying to cancel the prom,” said Ben Silverman, entertainment chief of NBC.

As the war of words escalated, the Writers Guild of America dismissed the comment as “awful” and “hamfisted”, noting that when the strike was over Silverman would be seeking to employ the very people he was describing.

The effects have been obvious to American viewers as networks delay premieres and plug gaps with repeats or reality shows. Production has shut down on series including Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, House, Lost, 24 and the US version of The Office. Films such as Angels and Demons, a prequel to The Da Vinci Code with Tom Hanks, have also been put on hold.

The strike has already cost the Los Angeles area $1,4-billion in lost wages, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation. The ripple effect is being felt by carpenters, caterers, make-up artists, stagehands, truck drivers and numerous other workers who find themselves out of work and struggling to meet mortgage payments.

“The delicate ecosystem in this town is starting to break down,” said Orla Brady, an Irish actress based in the city. “My husband and I are seeing friends for dinner tomorrow night. It will be at their house instead of a restaurant because they both work in the film business and they’re worried, so they’ve had to let their nanny go. Then you wonder how the nanny is going to make a living.”

The biggest financial and symbolic blow so far is the cancellation of the Globes. The winning films can usually expect a boost at the box office and in DVD sales around the world. The fashion industry expects free advertising when actresses showing off designerwear on the red carpet feature on television and in acres of celebrity magazine coverage.

The last time that writers downed pens — 20 years ago — the industry lost almost half a billion dollars. John Bowman, chief of the Writers Guild negotiating committee, said the present strike would hold firm and that if the Oscars were cancelled it would be the fault of the studios. “If the other side don’t return to the negotiating table they will force our hand,” he said. “They ceded the moral high ground when they left the table. If the other side isn’t there, we can’t do much about it. It would be a huge blow to the Hollywood community. Nobody’s happy about the possibility but all we can do is apply economic pressure and withhold our services. I hope it can be solved in time.”

When DVDs were introduced, many writers felt they had inherited a bad deal, earning four or five cents per disc sold. They are anxious not to make the same mistake with the internet, a technology that has already turned the music industry upside down. They accuse the studios of streaming entire programmes in the guise of “promotions” to avoid paying writers and are keen to claim a share of the cash if, and when, movies are released simultaneously in cinemas by the likes of Amazon and iTunes.

Some observers have mocked the writers as pampered and greedy, but Bowman, who began his writing career 20 years ago on Saturday Night Live, said Writers Guild members’ average annual income over a five-year period was $69 000. At any one time, half are unemployed — or rather, they say, working full-time on new projects and pitches without being paid. One such writer, Linda Burstyn, said she had been paid only one year in the last five, giving her an average income of $20 000. “Soon everything will be shown on the internet and, if we have no control, people like me will take a 50% to 70% pay cut with no health insurance and no pension,” she said. “I work for CBS now, but if I got hired by CBS.com and they showed the programme first, I could get paid a much smaller residual.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers denied the Observer‘s request for an interview but said in a statement: “Because the Writers Guild wants to get more power for its union, it is trying to disrupt the business of entertainment any way it can, no matter the consequences. The guild’s disruption of the awards shows does a lot to hurt the creative community in entertainment and audiences everywhere, but it does nothing to get us closer to a negotiated settlement of this dispute.”

If Hollywood’s actors also vote to strike this summer, then the city will face an even bigger crisis. But first it is the directors’ turn to negotiate with the studios and, if their traditionally less militant guild hammers out a deal, it could put pressure on the writers and actors to accept similar terms.

Sun-drenched boulevards lined with designer boutiques and coffee shops are an improbable setting for an old-fashioned labour dispute, but that is what is happening. Four or five days a week, up to 2 000 writers brandish placards outside the studios, earning supportive honks from passing traffic and nervous glances from executives driving into work. Recently one had a physical altercation with an employee at Fox, where writers of The Simpsons were making a stand. Some writers have picketed production of their own shows.

Last Thursday, picketing outside the arched wrought iron gates at Paramount Pictures, actor-writer Toby Huss said: “We’re portrayed as little boys who just want more money, which is horse shit. The opposite is true: we’re the ones who work every day and make millions for the producers. This strike is evidence of something happening all across America. After 50 years of declining power and participation, the unions are standing up for the middle class.”

For the rest of the community, there is growing unease and uncertainty. Celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, who has tentatively started work for the Oscars, said the strike would make itself felt more and more widely. “Right now it affects you but doesn’t paralyse you: it’s not like the garbage not being collected or the subway going on strike. But it could go on a very long time. Imagine a world with no new movies. Then people would notice.”

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