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Hollywood Blackout

Word of Mouth

By Alixandra E. Smith, Crimson Staff Writer

It has been 50 years since Edmund H. North, then a young member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), penned the screenplay for the alien invasion classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The movie’s debut marked the beginning of an incredible career for North, who would go on to win Oscar honors for co-authorship of “Patton.” After his death in 1990, North’s activism on behalf of screenwriters was recognized with the ascription of his name to the Guild’s highest honor, the Founders Award.

If North were alive today, a half-century later, he might well draw inspiration from the labor disputes currently embroiling his beloved union in order to draft a sequel to the film that first garnered him the limelight: “The Day Hollywood Stood Still.” It would be tragedy on a smaller scale, the demise of the silver screen as seen on the silver screen. And unlike the original, this one would be based on actual events.

What evil force has Hollywood in its grip? Nothing as campy as what science fiction can envision, to be sure. The latest tempest in Tinseltown (and no, it’s not J. Lo’s increasingly warped fashion sense) is that the contracts which the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild of America (SAG) have with the television and film industry (represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) are set to expire on May 1 and June 30, respectively. These 14,000 WGA members and 135,000 SAG members constitute the brains and the brawn (so to speak) of television and film in the United States. If their contracts expire before a settlement is reached, the unions will go on strike—leaving movie theaters nationwide in the lurch and turning the television test pattern into the latest ingenue.

And although representatives from both the WGA and SAG insist that they don’t want to go on strike, a standoff between the guilds and the industry seems inevitable. Talks with the WGA broke down on March 1 and will not resume for another two weeks; the SGA has failed to even begin negotiations. Sticking points include the best way to overhaul so-called “outmoded” residual payment formulas for syndicated television shows and movies released on DVD, as well as “creative rights” (in the case of the WGA) that would give writers more control over and credit for their product. What does this mean for the average American couch potato? The industry is certainly doing all it can to anticipate a shortage of material by stockpiling scripts and rushing current projects. Still, an extended walk-out could delay the start of the fall television season and cause a noticeable thinning of movie theater fare. Plus, projections by the independent Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. show that a production shutdown caused by dual actor/writer strikes could cost the region at least $2 billion a month.

The downside of the potential strikes is obvious: no weekly dosage of “The West Wing” and delays in the release of “Matrix 2.” Moreover, a lack of experienced writers and actors might make the “reality show” genre even more attractive to studio producers, as these shows require neither a well-crafted script nor a skilled cast. There can be no question that the alien invasion scenario would be highly preferable to continuous episodes of “Street Smarts” and “Big Brother” incarnates.

What might not be so obvious is the ways in which the strikes might actually benefit the consumer. A walk-out will force both the producers and the guilds to reexamine their current attitudes about how much their services are valued. Buoyed by a vibrant economy, even the most inexperienced actors and writers have come to expect exorbitant returns for their work, and the industry has continued to cater to those demands. The deadlock right now is due in part to the guilds’ unwillingness to adjust their figures in the face of a faltering economy. Perhaps their inability to inflate their salaries without bound will serve as the reality check that many writers and actors need: the knowledge that even the biggest stars cannot remain insulated from the laws of supply and demand.

Moreover, the potential strikes should help illuminate for the producers alliance—as it did for baseball owners six years ago—that competition for the American leisure hour is at an all-time high. For while our televisions and movie screens sit silent, our video games and radio stations and Internet chat rooms will not. And if the movie and television industry would like to successfully re-enter the playing field after the strike is over, they’re going to have to exercise more quality control over content than we’ve seen in the last few years. (Read: “The Mummy Returns.” No wonder ticket sales are down!)

If Hollywood experiences an entertainment blackout next fall, we can do little but sit back and hope for the best. In the meantime, well—Seinfeld reruns and Monday Night Football will have to suffice.

Alixandra E. Smith ’02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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