Caught in the strike, producers soldier on

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Casualties of the ongoing WGA strike are thick on the ground in Hollywood, but few industry professionals have as wrenching a tale to tell as Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the production team behind Warner Bros.' "The Bucket List," New Line's "Hairspray" and a long list of television specials and series. Meron and Zadan have been working for 16 years, they say, to turn Randy Shilts' book "The Mayor of Castro Street" -- a biography of assassinated San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly gay elected official -- into a motion picture.

But their script, although apparently finished, is still in the hands of screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, a WGA member. Meanwhile, Gus Van Sant's competing Milk biopic, set to star Sean Penn as the slain politician, continues to move toward production. Zadan calls this "the 'Capote' (2005) situation -- no sane person is going to make the second film about this subject." (In that case, of course, the casualty was Douglas McGrath's 2006 film "Infamous," which sank virtually without a trace despite positive reviews.) All those years of work have led to an almost certain dead end.

Since last November, when the WGA went on strike, Meron and Zadan have not been alone in their abandonment. As Producers Guild of America executive director Vance Van Petten puts it, "Producers are uniquely stuck between the two sides in the writers strike." The more than 3,500 individual producers who make up the PGA's membership are not the strike's targets, but they are especially vulnerable to its effects. In Hollywood's peculiar economy, producers are not exactly management and not exactly labor -- or to put it another way, they might be both, depending on the context.

Despite having their dream project dashed by the strike, Meron and Zadan -- like every other PGA member interviewed for this article -- remain strongly sympathetic to the striking writers' goals and even tactics. "It's very frustrating to hear people refer to this strike as the writers vs. the producers," says Jennifer Fox, the primary producer of Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton" and 2005's "Syriana." "The general public doesn't understand that we work for the studios, too."

While stressing that the guild itself is remaining strictly neutral, Van Petten suggests this is merely human nature at work. "Our members are individual producers, not production companies," he says. "It's only natural that they're going to sympathize with individual writers in this kind of dispute," especially because so many producers are also writers.

The guild's awkward position, Van Petten hints, could give it a chance to play a crucial but private role in resolving the strike. "We talk about this issue in our board meetings," he says, "and the main thing we come back to is not sticking our nose in, at least in public. We don't want to screw up the negotiations, but we're doing everything we can do, behind the scenes, to get the two sides to talk to each other. This needs to get resolved so we can all get back to work."

With the 19th annual PGA Awards set for Saturday, the writers strike is likely to be Topic A for virtually everyone in attendance at the Beverly Hilton. But even as the entire industry grows restless over the looming specter of a February without the usual Oscar telecast, the PGA, under the leadership of Van Petten and elected president Marshall Herskovitz (now nearing the end of his first two-year term), is looking forward to the resumption of normal life in Hollywood.

As Van Petten puts it, the PGA is "a guild in the old-fashioned sense, a professional trade organization made up of individuals" rather than a union. It sometimes acts like a union, most notably when negotiating with E! (as it did in 2007) and other production entities about the abysmal, and probably illegal, working conditions on some reality shows. "Members of the production teams were working 70-hour weeks with no meal breaks, no coffee breaks and no overtime pay," Van Petten says.

Although PGA members have no collective bargaining rights and cannot strike, the guild gently reminded E! that it was violating California labor laws and could be subject to a class-action lawsuit. The network reclassified the production workers on its reality programs and is now compensating them accordingly, Van Petten says.

"We want to appeal to them first with moral persuasion and then with legal persuasion," he adds. "We're ready to do what we have to do, but on the other hand, we don't want to drive these companies out of California, where our workers have the best legal protection."

For many movie producers, the thorniest problem facing the PGA has also proved to be the most difficult to solve: the seemingly endless and indecipherable proliferation of producing credits. "You look at the posters on our office wall, for projects we made," Meron says, "and sometimes our names are on the poster, sometimes they're not."

Chimes in Zadan: "Sometimes the people who got their names on the poster are people we never even met."

Through the PGA's "Truth in Credits" campaign, Van Petten says, "we're trying to give credit to producers who do the work of producer, rather than buy the title or inherit it." As he ruefully admits, so far "there hasn't been a carrot or a stick big enough" to compel studios to give up their ability to hand out producer credits willy-nilly.

"Sometimes you look at that list of names and you have to check them off, you know: 'This one was the actor's hairdresser,'" laughs Suzanne Todd, producer (with sister Jennifer) of Sony's "Across the Universe" and Yari Film Group's forthcoming "The Accidental Husband." "But I think it would be very hard

to come up with a system like the WGA's arbitration process. If there was some kind of accreditation, and people actually had to be qualified to do the job, that would halt something that happens so much at the studios now, where they end up with 11 or 12 or 14 producers on the movie."

Van Petten believes that ultimately the PGA can reach contractual agreement with the studios on what a producer is and does, which might also alleviate the annual trauma over which of a film's producers can accept industry awards. At the moment, AMPAS's rule allowing only three producers per film to ascend the podium (with rare exceptions) means inevitable heartbreak for someone in awards season.

Craig Zadan observes that he and Meron produced "The Bucket List" alongside Rob Reiner and Alan Greisman. "We were together every minute," he says. "There was no decision one of us made that the others didn't make. If we were so lucky as to win an Oscar, which one of us has to stay home?"

Perhaps the PGA's arbitration checklist of the 40-odd tasks customarily performed by producers should be shared more widely with the general public since, as producers are eager to lament, hardly anyone outside the business knows what they do.

"People ask me all the time: 'What exactly did you do on the movie?'" Meron says. "I say, 'Everything.' The producer is the person who holds the movie together, the one person who can't freak out, break down or go ballistic. People have no idea what producers do, and that literally diminishes your job."



Party Central: The PGA Awards have moved this year -- and the festivities have come along for the ride

What: The 19th annual Producers Guild of America Awards
Where: Beverly Hilton
When: Saturday, Feb. 2
Honorees: Alan Horn (Milestone Award); Dick Wolf (Norman Lear Achievement Award in
Television); Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures); Simon Fuller (Visionary Award); YouTube founders Chad
Hurley and Steve Chen (Vanguard Award); the producers of MGM/Weinstein Co.'s "The Great Debaters" (Stanley Kramer Award)

"It's not just sitting around and eating some lousy chicken and hearing people say, 'Thank you,'" insists PGA board member Hawk Koch, who co-chairs the awards with the PGA's vp television Mark Gordon. "Last year, the president of the Academy said to me, 'That wasn't just an awards show, that was fun!'"

And with luck and proper planning, that's the hope for this year, too. The venue has switched from the long-used Hyatt Regency Century Plaza (the DGA usurped the spot for its 60th awards celebration) to the Beverly Hilton, which will probably be filled to capacity. Koch reports that in 2007 they had approximately 1,280 attendees, and the new venue holds only 1,200. Not a bad turnout for a guild membership of more than 3,500. And, as with last year, there are unannounced special guests and musical performances scheduled.

And there are other reasons to look up, despite the (strike-induced) somber times, Koch says. "There's no clear-cut movie, no 'Titanic.' Nobody knows who's going to be nominated or what's going to happen. I think we cover a lot of bases this year with our honorees, and it's going to be a fun night. In times like this, go back to the Depression, or the 1930s, when everyone wanted to escape for a few hours. The awards show will give everyone an opportunity to do that."
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