Studios look ahead, cautiously

Potential SAG strike has many antsy about '09 slates

The strike's impending resolution has heartened studios, specialty divisions and mini-majors that a host of development projects could suddenly be jump-started.

But the specter of a SAG strike in June is tempering enthusiasm because anything that wasn't ready for preproduction before the writers strike began Nov. 5 now won't have enough time to get there before the SAG window closes.

"There's a lot we can do now (in the case of a resolution) that we couldn't do during the writers strike. But there's still a lot we can't do," said one exec.

The timing of the potential resolution — less than five months before a potential actors walkout — means there will be no immediate greenlights based on the work of returning writers.

Still, development projects frozen at the beginning of November can now finally begin to thaw.

Among them is DreamWorks' "The Trials of the Chicago 7," Steven Spielberg's narrative take on the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention.

The project has a finished script, but because it is deemed to be heavily dependent on writing, Spielberg is said to want more script adjustments. If the strike ends next week, the project could still shoot in the spring, just under the wire of a possible SAG strike.

If the WGA doesn't vote to end the stoppage imminently, though, sources said the production likely would be pushed until after a possible SAG strike.

Meanwhile, productions with known script issues  such as Warners Bros. tentpole "Justice League"  are expected to get fast-tracked once writers return to the scene.

Columbia's Tom Cruise starrer "Edwin A. Salt" also hit some development roadblocks and appears to be in limbo. After director Terry George left the project late last year, Michael Mann was in talks to helm, but only if there was a rewrite, which was impossible with the strike. (Peter Berg also was in talks direct in December but has decided not to helm the project, his agency, Endeavor, said Thursday.)

Mini-majors and stand-alone units, many of which signed interim agreements, will see a limited effect from a strike resolution; Lionsgate, the Weinstein Co. and, most notably, UA all have had weeks, if not months, to work on scripts.

But a number of those companies that didn't sign such agreements will find projects getting an adrenaline kick. At Summit, Gary Winick's "Letters to Juliet" and thriller "Labyrinth" are expected to get a boost in development from the return of writers. At MGM, meanwhile, revivals of "Fame" and "Death Wish" also are expected to reap the benefits of returning writers.

A restocking of the cupboard also is expected as agents and writers begin to crank up the spec script market in the hope of finding hungry studios.

The consensus from industryites seemed to be that Warner Bros. had the most immediate need on both the development and spec script sides. The studio's offerings for 2009 are light, with "Watchmen," based on the graphic novel; the children's fantasy "Where the Wild Things Are"; and "Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins."

There are at least nine more projects that are not dated but could be slated for 2009, according to one source. But one studio tentpole, the sequel to "Superman Returns," is not so lucky. There apparently are no current plans to add the project to the slate, according to a studio source.

A number of studios are in slightly less urgent situations. Sony/Columbia stocked up on prestrike projects and has a half-dozen films for its 2009 slate already in production or preproduction, including Judd Apatow's "The Year One," the Kevin James comedy "Mall Cop" and Escape Artists' remake of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three."

Still, one of the few casualties the studio suffered during the strike was the postponement of February production on "Angels & Demons," the follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code." Originally eyeing a December release, the studio pushed back the date to spring 2009 after saying the Akiva Goldsman-scripted project wasn't ready.

Fox adjusted its 2009 slate shortly after the strike started; the studio has at least half a dozen films gearing up for production, including "Night at the Museum II: Escape From the Smithsonian" and "Ice Age III." James Cameron's highly anticipated 3-D feature "Avatar" originally was planned for a Memorial Day release but was pushed back seven months to Dec. 18, 2009, for what the studio says were software, not strike-related, issues.

On the specialty side, several companies, but not all, are expected to make spec scripts a high priority.

Among them is Fox Searchlight. With the company laying off acquisitions at last month's Sundance Film Festival and only a handful of projects significantly along in production — including a Notorious B.I.G. biopic, the Keanu Reeves thriller "Street Kings" (formerly "The Night Watchman") and "The Secret Life of Bees" — it could be looking heavily at scripts.

And with the HBO Films deal possibly unwinding, Picturehouse could need projects. Among the biggest films in development are HBO Films' "American Girl" and the genre gambit "Amusement."

Disney's Miramax doesn't have a lot in production, but it doesn't have as many slots to fill as some of its competitors, either. Highlights of the imminent slate include Scott Rudin's big-screen version of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," a remake of "Brideshead Revisited" and Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of the Portuguese novel "Blindness." Development projects include the Ryan Fleck-Anna Boden collaboration on "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" and literary adaptation "The Lost Painting."

"It's going to be one of those situations where everyone says coming out of the strike that they're fine," said one studio source. "But I think we're going to see over the next few months who really has enough for '09 and who has to scramble."

Steven Zeitchik reported from New York; Leslie Simmons reported from Los Angeles. Carly Mayberry and Carolyn Giardina in Los Angeles contributed to this report.