Arts & Entertainment

Writers strike could cost $21.3 million a day

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As thousands of TV and film writers marched along Hollywood Boulevard in the third week of their strike, film officials put a price tag on the potential economic toll of the walkout. Los Angeles' economy will lose more than $20 million a day in direct production spending if the writers strike extends into next month, according to FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit group that handles film permits and promotes the industry.

"If the strike continues it's going to have a huge impact on the local economy and middle-class jobs," FilmL.A. President Steve MacDonald said Tuesday.

Writers walked out more than two weeks ago in a dispute with major studios over pay for work that is distributed via the Internet, video iPods, cellphones and other new media. Writers and major studios are set to resume talks Monday, although the guild has vowed to continue striking until a deal is finalized.

On Hollywood Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon, striking writers were joined by members of such unions as the Screen Actors Guild, Teamsters and Service Employees International Union. The solidarity march drew 4,000 people, according to the Writers Guild of America.

The 1 1/2 -hour rally, which moved along the historic stretch of the boulevard, kicked off with an appearance by R&B singer Alicia Keys. "I'm here in support of this cause," she said amid deafening cheers. "I want you to know I am a writer, too."

Depending on how long it lasts, the strike could end up inflicting more economic pain than the previous writers walkout in 1988, which lasted 22 weeks and cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million. That was the equivalent of a little more than $3 million a day.

Hollywood is a more dominant force in the region today, with studios and networks that are part of global media giants such as Time Warner Inc., Walt Disney Co. and News Corp. Los Angeles also is more dependent than ever on television production, which has taken the biggest hit in the strike. The walkout occurred in the middle of the fall TV season, before networks had a chance to stockpile all the scripts they needed.

Already, at least two dozen shows have stopped production, including dramas such as "24," "Cold Case" and "Desperate Housewives," late-night shows and several sitcoms including "Till Death," "The Office" and "My Name Is Earl."

Most TV shows are filmed in L.A., so the effect is especially acute here. If the strike continues into next month, virtually all of the 44 one-hour dramas and 21 situation comedies that are shot in Los Angeles will stop production entirely as the shows run out of fresh scripts to keep crews filming, industry officials say.

That will translate into a loss of 15,000 jobs and $21.3 million a day in direct spending, according to FilmL.A. The estimate is based on the average number of employees on these shows, and their typical budgets and shooting cycles.

For example, a single episode of a drama costs about $3 million to produce, employs 300 people and takes eight days to shoot. An episode of a half-hour sitcom costs $1.5 million, employs an average of 88 employees and has a five-day shooting cycle.

Sitcoms were the first to take a hit because of the shorter lead times in writing them. During the first two weeks of the strike, filming for sitcoms outside of studio soundstages dropped nearly 50% compared with the same period a year earlier, according to FilmL.A. Activity for TV dramas has been virtually flat, while on-location reality TV shoots jumped 23% recently.

FilmL.A.'s estimate is conservative because it only takes into account jobs in the industry, not the scores of jobs at restaurants, hotels and other businesses that service Hollywood. The entertainment industry accounts for almost 7% of Los Angeles County's $442-billion economy.

Nor does it factor in job losses from the feature film sector. Studios already have scripts in hand for their 2008 slates, so only a few feature films have delayed production, including Ron Howard's "Angels & Demons" and Oliver Stone's "Pinkville."

The level of disruption was underscored by Tuesday's march. Streets connecting to Hollywood Boulevard between Ivar and Highland avenues were closed to traffic for the march.

After Keys performed two songs, the crowd -- led by a small fleet of Teamsters trucks -- marched to the sound of drumbeats, waving signs and chanting, "Contracts! Now!" and "On strike, shut 'em down -- Hollywood's a union town!"

Creative messages dotted the sea of signs. One marcher took the opportunity to seek an eligible bachelor, waving a sign that said, "Looking for Mr. Write."

Helicopters and a small plane pulling a banner that said, "WGA -- on the same page," circled overhead. Representatives from Creative Artists Agency walked through the crowd serving scones and hot apple cider.

"The writers are fighting the fight that we have coming up next year, so we're staying with them every step of the way," said Pamm Fair, deputy national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild. The actors contract expires June 30.

The commotion drew attention from curious onlookers. Residents in apartment complexes along Hollywood Boulevard cheered from open windows, while store owners stood in their doorways, some handing out coupons to marchers.

The march came to an end in front of the Chinese theater, where "A Beautiful Mind" writer Akiva Goldsman, actress Sandra Oh of "Grey's Anatomy" and Writers Guild negotiation committee Chairman John F. Bowman took to the stage.

"Pay us and we'll shut up and go back to work," Bowman said during his speech. "Show some soul, we'll show some flexibility."

richard.verrier@latimes.com

andrea.chang@latimes.com

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