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Collateral Damage

Studio bosses and talent come to blows in L.A. New York's indie film industry gets caught in the crossfire

As moguls and writers fight over the spoils from DVD and digital-download revenue and celebrities on both coasts pound the pavement in solidarity with the scribes, there's an unintended casualty in the Great Hollywood War of 2007: independent filmmaking.

The Writers Guild of America strike—now in its second week—may hurt local crews looking for steady paychecks, but it's Hollywood's strategic preemptive measures that have caused the most damage to indies. Because of a writers' strike and the more worrisome (and now likely) prospect of a Screen Actors Guild walkout (SAG's contract expires on June 30), studios have been ramping up production since winter 2006, stockpiling scripts and signing talent. That's left many low-budget films, which depend on recognizable names for financing, in the lurch—or, as one Gotham producer puts it, "We're the afterthought."

"No one is returning calls," says producer Andrew Fierberg (Broken English, Secretary), who is currently trying to make The Bait, a $2 million adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play Man and Boy, to be shot in New York and directed by vet David Hugh Jones (84 Charing Cross Road). "I have good relationships with the agencies and the actors, and as much as they like the scripts and want to be in the movies, no one can afford to turn down a big-money studio job before the strike."

Mike S. Ryan, producer of Todd Solondz's Palindromes, has been pursuing an actor to headline Caveh Zahedi's French-American love story Paris X Infinity, but there's no way the talent manager will agree to it, "because they're trying to fill his dance card until June 30."

Since actors are in such high demand, they're also dropping out of projects for better-paying gigs and jacking up their fees. "There's an actor I know who is getting a threefold raise just because he's the only comedy guy left," says entertainment attorney and producer John Sloss, who notes that all of his directing clients—from Richard Linklater to Kevin Smith—are working feverishly now in case there's an actors' strike.

Many indie writer-directors are supportive of the union's goals, but dependent on Hollywood side gigs to stay afloat. "We'll see how long my cash reserves hold out," says Mutual Appreciation's Andrew Bujalski, who's been paying his rent with studio work. "Worst-case scenario," he adds: "I have to pull some kind of shitty day job."

Strike jitters have also forced cash-strapped indie producers to fork over more money for scripts and stars in a shorter time span than usual. "It puts you into a position of optioning something even if there's just a 5 percent chance of making the film," says one.

As dire as an extended strike may be, some indie players are searching for silver linings. Entertainment attorney Andrew Hurwitz, for example, says several of the major pre-strike studio projects could collapse because their scripts, written by WGA members, are not as polished as they need to be. "It's unusual for a script to be totally locked," he says. Without the chance for rewrites, the projects may be abandoned and the actors freed up for indie films ready to go with scripts written by non-WGA members.

Producer Anthony Bregman, who recently wrapped production on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, agrees. "It was really difficult a month ago, but now it feels like a lot of those [studio] projects have fallen apart," he says.

There may also be a short window of opportunity in the spring, when studio films are wrapping up in advance of the SAG deadline and indies can hire available stars in the short term. "In the March 15 to June 1 period," says low-budget producer Gill Holland, "we could ramp up quickly and get really amazing actors who may have already wrapped the third of the three films that they're trying to squeeze in pre-strike."

Fierberg, however, doesn't buy it. "It could be a golden time," he says, "but I wouldn't count on it. The idea that the studios would stop being greedy and would let the actors go is Pollyanna-ish. I think they're going to pull up bad scripts and get those actors working until the very last minute."

If the strike continues, however, independents may have the ultimate upper hand. Interim agreements—waivers offered to non-Hollywood signatories—have been used as an effective tool on the part of unions to keep their members working. A veteran of past work stoppages, Sloss says he takes comfort in the fact that, "if you can prove you have no nexus to the studios, then [SAG] will let you work."

In the meantime, Fierberg is without a big-name actor and therefore without financing. He's resorted to searching for non-SAG stars abroad. "We will go out of business," he warns, "because we can't afford not to attach stars and not to make movies for a year. We're already fragile as it is."

 
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