Warning: Speed bumps

Quality could be compromised by pic stockpiling

As Hollywood plays beat the clock, rushing films into production amid fears of a talent strike, there's a rising concern: Will haste make waste?

"The critical thing is whether anybody has loosened their standards about what they are making," a top studio boss warned. "For those for whom panic has set in, it could be bad."

Panicky productions or not, there are few sedate execs in Hollywood at present as studios and above-the-line unions begin their kabuki-like dance around the bargaining table.

So far, there has been little to suggest a speedy or happy outcome to negotiations between the studios and the WGA, whose contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers expires Oct. 31. SAG and the DGA will be holding similar talks eventually, with their AMPTP contracts for film and TV set to expire June 30.

Film L.A. and the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. each recently cited a dramatic surge in production because of studio stockpiling prompted by concerns over a strike threat. And with such a buildup of studio inventory, there is sure to be a sharp fall in entertainment employment next year regardless of whether a strike actually occurs, the forecasters warned.

"You can feel the stress," a top production exec confided. "The agents are feeling it, the studios are feeling it and the actors are feeling it."

Much of the concern involves a heated competition for top talent, fanned by early frenetic activity that has gained intensity during the past few months. Once even one major studio started accelerating production, the others had to do so or risk finding actors unavailable when projects would finally get going.

"I don't care if you're talking about Jim Carrey or Tom Hanks or anybody else, there are a finite number of (acting) slots and a finite number of people you want in these slots," a studio chief said. "And all the agents in town are playing that game."

At press time, Carrey and Hanks each still had at least one more opening on his Hollywood dance card.

Frank Mancuso, corporate board chairman at the Motion Picture & Television Fund, was chairman and CEO at Paramount during the 22-week writers strike in 1988. But despite the still-fresh memories of that painful period, he said it's tough to offer any pat advice about the lessons learned.

"The number of pictures being cast is going to create a substantial lessening of available talent that you would want for your project, and that can create imprudent moves when you're setting a film up," Mancuso said. "However, it's the obvious necessity of the situation, when you see the potential shutdown of the industry taking shape. So those are just some of the risks you have to take."

As for any danger in overpaying to cast movies, he added: "It's a picture-by-picture value decision, whether to pay for top talent. If you believe that they are key to the potential success of the film from a creative or marketing point of view, then you probably have to pay what it will take to get them."

Industry woes didn't end with the conclusion of the writers' walkout, Mancuso added. Their return to work theoretically allowed a resumption of production, but first studios had to sort through built-up inventory, dust off projects in development and then decide which projects should proceed and when, he recalled.

"It's kind of like the after-effect of being out half of the night and having to get up early for an appointment," Mancuso said. "There's a hangover that you have to deal with as you try to start up the whole apparatus again to its full moving-forward potential."

Of course, the worst possible mistake for studios would be greenlighting a film before a strike but failing to wrap the shoot before a walkout occurs.

Currently, studios execs are aiming to get as many films into production by March 1- Feb. 15 if possible to allow for potential postproduction snags on complex projects. They figure that will give them four months to complete movies before a possible June 30 actors strike.

But what that doesn't account for is the question of how to promote those completed films.

"If there is a strike, that probably means even if movies are finished, the actors can't go out and promote the movie, as that would be in one way or another a violation of their guild agreement," a top production executive said.

But that's just one of the potential pitfalls in Hollywood's mad race against the clock, some believe.

"You really have to have the discipline," said Chris McGurk, the former high-ranking MGM and Universal exec now CEO of Overture Films at Liberty Media/Starz.

"You have to step back and not do anything differently because of a pending strike. When you try to force something or rush something, it really can lead to sub-optimium conditions. You have to approach things just as if you did not have the specter of a strike hanging over you."

Potential mistakes include approving a script before it's truly in "go" condition or failing to adhere to the usual mechanics of the film-budgeting process, he said.

"And rushing the casting process is never a good thing," McGurk added. "Overall, accelerating production (because of strike features) just leads to a much higher level of execution risk."
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