Scenes from the class struggle

Strike threat helps indies, doesn't hurt tentpoles but squeezes the middle

The effects of a possible SAG strike on film production is like a certain kind of tax policy: hell on the middle class but benign and even favorable for the rich and poor.

Many midrange studio productions began shoots in the spring, leaving producers and actors with frenetic schedules that are quieting into a lull as a possible actors' walkout looms in July. Movies as diverse as "Nottingham," "Julie & Julia," "Shutter Island" and "Milk" all shot in the spring and look to be getting in under the wire.

But the effects diminish as you move farther away from the middle.

For the biggest productions, the threat of a work stoppage is having a minimal effect. Such date-dependent tentpoles as DreamWorks' "Transformers" sequel and Halcyon's "Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins," which Warner Bros. will release, still are rolling the dice and pushing ahead with imminent starts; the costs that could result from a midshoot shutdown, while unwelcome, pale compared with the kinds of margins these films are aiming for.

At the other end of the spectrum, not only is a possible strike having no impact, but it actually is helping many productions. Such indie shingles as the Film Department, Plum Pictures and Two Ton Films have acquired SAG waivers for movies set to start shooting during the next six weeks. They're finding that, after a prestrike logjam, not only has traffic eased but talent suddenly is abundant.

Waivers, then, have become not just license to shoot in the summer — they're a kind of walking advertisement for actors and crews who want to work without worrying about SAG drama.

"A strike absolutely makes it possible to get the quality of people you normally wouldn't have a shot at," said Mark Gill, co-founder of the Film Department, which is prepping as many as four movies to shoot during the strike, including Bart Freundlich's cougar comedy "The Rebound" with Catherine Zeta-Jones. "If we don't use this window now, we're crazy. It's the best opportunity we'll have for years to come."

The result could be a baby boom of sorts for independently made movies with big names, a class that likely will emerge toward year's end and early 2009. "It's going to be one interesting Sundance next year," one industry insider said.

The decisions also are affecting how producers are financing movies before going into production in the first place; several said they weighed independent financing more favorably compared with specialty division financing.

SAG and the AMPTP suspended negotiations Tuesday with no deal in place. While many in Hollywood believe that the actors won't actually walk out, the perception of a strike has become its own reality. "Even if a strike doesn't happen, it's going to be very hard for a studio to get a movie going right away," Plum Pictures principal Celine Rattray said. "That means July is going to be a really fun month for a lot of indies."

Nor are the benefits limited to pure indies.

Such stand-alone mini-majors as the Weinstein Co., Lionsgate and Summit are on somewhat squishy middle ground; while they function as independent companies, they often pact with outsiders for various forms of distribution.

Still, productions from these companies could obtain waivers. Many mini-majors have films that are slated to begin production this month, including the John Cuasck action film "Shanghai" at the Weinstein Co. and Tyler Perry's "Madea Goes to Jail" for Lionsgate.

The SAG waivers, which serve as guarantee completion agreements, are playing out differently than the interim agreements did during the WGA strike, in which they mainly allowed for scattered rewrites. This time, they could prove critical for companies, particularly specialty divisions and mini-majors, who will use them to shoot now and deepen thin 2009 slates.

Unlike the WGA strike, which was primarily a television strike, the potential SAG walkout is hitting film in all sorts of ways. The scribe stoppage came about abruptly and, because it concerned writers, froze many projects in development. That made its impact felt more sharply on TV.

But the SAG strike is working in exactly the opposite way. Because studios have had plenty of advance warning — and because it gums up projects farther along in the production process — its impact is felt in the more long-term business of the studios. On television, shows like "Ugly Betty" will start shooting a new crop of episodes as late as June. Because of the shorter production schedule of individual episodes, a stoppage doesn't mean interrupting a three-month shoot.

Not all studio projects were rushed this spring. Some, like DreamWorks' "The Trial of the Chicago 7," were pushed back altogether until after SAG issues are resolved. And some tentpoles are in the fortuitous position of not having to worry about a strike in the first place. Walden Media's third entry in the "Chronicles of Narnia" series won't see its early-fall start affected in any event; the production uses mostly international actors who aren't SAG members. (partialdiff)