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JETTISONING THE BALLAST: It was raining pink slips in Hollywood over the last week, as the studios canceled contracts with dozens of writers and producers in what’s called a force majeure action – an option only exercised in a crisis where money is being lost faster than it’s being made. It’s the first real sign that the studios and networks are being hurt by the Writers Guild of America strike, though the obvious victims are the writers who’ve lost their gigs – “writers who may have achieved some success but were not behind the bigger hits,” according to an article in the Los Angeles Times business section.
All four of the major television studios cut production and development agreements, a total of 65 according to the Times, with ABC doing the lion’s share, chopping 25 deals from its books. “”I didn’t see it coming,” said Barbara Hall, whose credits include Joan of Arcadia and Judging Amy. She heard about the end of her deal with ABC on Friday. “I am not entirely sure what their strategy is, all I know was that I was a casualty of it.”
At the moment, it is hard to see the rhyme or reason behind the cuts. Besides smaller deals with writers and producers with small successes and simmering careers on their resume, names such as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm writer Larry Charles lost deals, as did Hugh Jackman’s company Seed Productions, which had just signed a multiyear deal with CBS in August, according to a story in the Guardian.
Both the Times and the Guardian noted that the canceled deals will save the studios a lot of cash – between US$500,000 and $2 million per writer – though the clear-cutting not only puts the toe tag on the current TV season, it also puts the next season in jeopardy. This is the month when new scripts and pilots are ordered, to be premiered at the May upfronts and over the course of the summer, but even if the strike ends soon, the cupboard is bare and it will take months to get production back up to speed.
An unnamed executive even told the Times that “there are likely to be deeper cuts” next month, if the strike remains unresolved. The conspiracy-minded, however, can see this as an opportunity for the studios to cull dead weight and reverse bad decisions – a multimillion-dollar exercise in alleviating buyer’s remorse that will leave them leaner and tighter when production resumes, and surrounded by a pool of talent eager to get back to work and more likely to agree to the studios’ terms. Whatever happens, viewers had better start familiarizing themselves with the rarified air in the nether regions of cable, or strap in for an American Gladiators marathon that could last till next Christmas.
Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto