Striking Distance

New York’s Indie Filmmakers Prepare for a Summer Shutdown

Forget asteroids, tidal waves, and volcanoes. Hollywood is worried about an even more crippling disaster this summer blockbuster season: possible strikes by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. Panicked TV and film studios have been quick to react in the last few months—stockpiling scripts, rushing into production on "pre-strike" movies, and slating even more no-writers-required reality TV series. But with time running out (the WGA's contract expires May 1, while SAG's ends on June 30), the threat of a work stoppage is proving to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Studios have postponed summer productions (Basic Instinct 2), adding to an ever growing list of "post-strike" projects (Terminator 3).

Meanwhile, New York's independent film community, which has no seat at the bargaining table, waits on the sidelines for the unions and studios to hash out the deal points. The actors want increased residual payments and new contract provisions for emerging markets like DVDs and the Internet. The writers throw in creative issues, such as allowing the screenwriter on set and limiting the use of the "possessory credit" (e.g., Blowis billed as "a Ted Demme film," even though he didn't write it). Caught between the studios, who claim these demands will bankrupt the industry, and the unions, who hold the reins to the workforce, the independents remain allied in spirit with struggling actors and writers but desperate to keep on working.

"What's very frustrating as an independent producer is that I don't care about what the studios want," says Jason Kliot of Open City Films (producers of Chuck & Buck). "Ultimately, I tend to be on SAG's side. The irony is that I hear the union rep from SAG refers to their opposition as 'The Producers.' But we are not those producers. I'm screwed out of the same residuals that all the actors are every time I make a deal with the studios. SAG and independent producers have a common enemy on this."

Independent producers and the unions will likely join forces against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on the issue of interim agreements: temporary contracts that would allow certain indies to continue union shoots. "We feel this is an appeal to the lower-budget, independent community," says Greg Krizman, spokesman for the actors' unions SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). "It's not like we're going to expect Warner Bros. to be signing this thing."

"If there are interim agreements, there will be a distinct advantage to companies like ours," says Amir Malin, CEO of Artisan Entertainment (Requiem for a Dream), a mini-major company not tied to the AMPTP. "It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the studios, because while other producers will be making movies, they're sitting at the table negotiating."

But Artisan, like many indies, has studio money mixed in with certain projects. Their upcoming Dirty Dancing 2, for instance, is a coproduction with Miramax, a subsidiary of Disney, and would not be able to move forward. "So that's going to cause some hiccups," adds Malin.

Christine Vachon of Killer Films (Boys Don't Cry) agrees that interim agreements are no panacea for independents. "A lot of our movies get studio financing, so it's a difficult situation for us," she says. While Killer has been "operating in deep denial" of the strike, according to Vachon, the company remains in good shape for the summer, doing postproduction on several films and preparing the new Todd Haynes movie for the fall.

Other indie filmmakers are finding ways to finesse the strike hysteria to their own advantage. "With all the movies falling apart at the studio level," says Scott Macaulay of Forensic Films (Gummo; First Love, Last Rites), "there will be some actors with holes in their schedules, so we're hoping to capitalize on that." Macaulay's company is also pursuing strike-proof efforts such as documentaries, a development deal overseas with French company Studio Canal, and an improvisational film (by Jesse Peretz).

"It's been a very weird time in terms of putting films together," says entertainment attorney and producer's rep John Sloss. His companies, Sloss Law and Cinetic Media, are working on several "pre-strike" indies, such as Gary Winick's DV feature Tadpole, which nabbed Sigourney Weaver for one of the lead roles. "It's had a bizarre effect on the actor pool. Some people become available you wouldn't expect, and some people are not available because they grabbed the first thing they could to make sure they were working up until the strike."

Sloss also benefited from FOS—or "Fear of Strike" as they're calling it in L.A.—back at January's Sundance Film Festival, where he sold his entire slate to U.S. distributors, nabbing the fest's highest price tags for two of his films, The Deep End and Super Troopers (both sold to Fox Searchlight, for $4 million and $2.5 million respectively). "Either we had brilliant movies, were incredibly lucky, or there was a heightened demand in anticipation of the strike," says Sloss.

There's a school of thought that believes studios might actually benefit from strikes. Macaulay says, "A lot of the studio contracts have force majeure clauses that state in an industry-wide labor stoppage, contracts would be rendered void, so studios can effectively clean house with talent deals that aren't paying out or producer deals that don't work." However, WGA-East exec Mona Mangan doesn't see this as a motivating force for studios. "I think that's a minor sideshow in the context of what it would mean to shut down the entire industry."

Strike panic may do the most damage to the unions' members, those middle-income actors and writers scrambling for a paycheck now that the industry is going from boom to bust. "Anybody who might be just starting on their career with a bang," says one WGA writer, "suddenly it goes on hold. My wife and I were considering buying a house, but that's on hold. Everything's on hold. We have enough to survive, but it's still kind of scary. You just don't know how long this is going to last."

"If you're an actor like me," says Tom Gilroy, writer-director of Spring Forward and a SAG member who's directing a production of Hamlet for the New Jersey Shakespeare festival this August, "we have to save our money, because we don't know what's going to happen from one day to the next." Gilroy's cast includes Lili Taylor, Jared Harris, The Sopranos' John Ventimiglia, and Richard Harris. "Because of the strike, we knew people would be less nervous about being employed in a play," he says. Citing the Public Theater's summer schedule as evidence of a New York theater resurgence, he adds, "Maybe the strike will give theater a little kick in the ass." Mike Nichols's summer production of The Seagull, for example, will feature a who's who of Hollywood notables: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Goodman, and Christopher Walken.

Unlike the union reps, studio execs, and independent producers, Gilroy actually wants a strike. "The first thing I thought of was, 'Great! There won't be an Adam Sandler movie next summer.' Writers won't write crap, and actors won't have to act in it. Will there be certain people like my manager or certain indie producers that might be squeezed for four months because they don't have any income? Yeah, but culturally, it's one of the best things that could happen to our incredibly vacuous, bloated media industry."

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