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Filmmakers’ preemptive strike

Special to The Times

“Justice League of America” is exactly the kind of movie Warner Bros. loves to make. Based on the classic DC Comics series, the script is filled with a dream team of recognizable superheroes -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash -- and could not only become its own franchise, but also could spin off individual character sequels, TV shows and merchandise (Green Lantern Underoos, anyone?).

But even a roster of superheroes may not have enough special powers to repel the nastiest villain on Hollywood’s horizon: an impending labor dispute that could devastate the local economy.

“JLA” is but one of many projects caught in an industrywide scramble to assemble films that can be completed before a potential talent strike shuts down film production next summer, according to interviews with two dozen studio executives, agents, producers and screenwriters. Studio executives and producers are accelerating screenplay revisions and A-list directors are postponing editing so they can compile footage on back-to-back movies should actors swap punch lines for picket lines.

The studios are mindful of the mistakes they made in 2001’s similarly prolonged contract skirmish, when frenzied decision-making led to miscasting, half-baked screenplays and poorly matched filmmakers. Or, more than usual, anyway. Though a strike never happened, the resulting overabundance of undercooked cinema (“The Truth About Charlie,” “Reign of Fire,” “Dark Blue”) left everyone with a hangover.

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The studios’ contracts with the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America expire June 30. Their deal with the Writers Guild of America runs out this October, but the WGA is expected to work without a new pact temporarily, hoping the delay will give it more clout as the DGA and SAG contracts also expire. While the guilds have separate demands, they are united in their quest for revenues from new media such as video on demand, Web downloads and cellphone content.

To beat the strike deadlines, the studios must start filming by March 1. While some high-profile projects are coming together quickly, other prominent movies -- “JLA,” Will Ferrell’s “Land of the Lost,” Matt Damon’s “The Fighter,” Eddie Murphy’s “Fantasy Island” -- must clear logistical, financial and political hurdles to move forward.

“The next four weeks are really critical,” says Paramount production chief Brad Weston. “Movies are coming together and falling apart by the day.”

“JLA” is a perfect test case. With concurrent individual comic book franchises already running -- a “Batman” sequel is in production and a “Superman Returns” sequel is possible -- there’s the danger of confusing fans with simultaneous versions of the same characters. Furthermore, the current Batman, Christian Bale, is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after actors and apparently has little interest in an additional trip to the Bat Cave.

“JLA” also could create something of a superhero glut since Warner Bros. greenlighted “Watchmen,” another DC Comics adaptation that just started preproduction with “300" director Zack Snyder. Worried that “JLA” might undercut his Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight,” director Chris Nolan isn’t thrilled with the current “JLA” plans, according to people familiar with his thinking. A spokeswoman for the director said, “Chris Nolan is knee-deep in production on ‘The Dark Knight’ [and] has not commented on a potential ‘JLA’ movie or any other project.”

Regardless, Warner Bros., which declined to comment, needs to hire a “JLA” director immediately to guide any further rewrites and attract actors. As it is, numerous directors have been passing on the project, although “Happy Feet’s” George Miller may end up in the chair. Like any last-minute rescue, time is of the essence.

Hiatus, aloha

August is usually when Hollywood takes off for Maui and the Hamptons, but this year a lot of people put off their getaways. “Usually tumbleweeds are blowing through town. Not this summer,” says DreamWorks production chief Adam Goodman.

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“It’s actually a very competitive, overworked summer,” says producer John Davis, whose possible projects include “Fantasy Island,” in which Murphy will play multiple roles. Compared with a year ago, local film production through the end of June was up nearly 30%.

“Everybody is saying, ‘Let’s get out of the gate fast and hope no one catches us in the home stretch,’ ” says Dan Black of the entertainment law firm Greenberg Traurig.

Some top stars are available for only a few weeks between January and June. Ferrell, who’s booked through February, has a final March slot that he may use for a remake of TV’s “Land of the Lost,” directed by Brad Silberling, at Universal.

White-hot director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) hopes to turn Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Iraq book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” into a Universal film starring his “Bourne” star Damon. But Damon may not have time to film it before he is scheduled to play Archer Daniels Midland Co. whistle-blower Mark Whitacre in Warner Bros.’ “The Informant” for Steven Soderbergh in mid-April. “Deja Vu” director Tony Scott is eager to remake “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” for Sony before a strike, but only if he can find a worthy ensemble.

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Instead of the typical contractually mandated 12 weeks screenwriters have to pen a first draft, current deals are shrinking that window by a third. And rather than demanding 80-page contracts for talent, studio lawyers are now settling for short-form deals on fewer than 20 pages, says Black.

The clock is running fast everywhere you look. Screen Gems bought the remake rights to a horror film and gave the seller a 30-day progress-to-production deadline, meaning that the movie must be greenlighted inside of a month. To meet the deadline, the producers hired a screenwriting duo to crank out a script in just seven days.

Some studios are considering moving forward on big-budget, effects-driven movies with no more than a detailed treatment that would at least allow preproduction to begin. Universal hopes to make a fourth “The Fast and the Furious” film even though it does not have a script or director.

Several directors are front-loading principal photography on a pair of films and pushing off postproduction (which can be done without actors and writers) on both until after the possible strike deadline. Ron Howard is going directly from shooting “Frost/Nixon” to “Angels & Demons,” the “Da Vinci Code” prequel. Ridley Scott will finish shooting “Body of Lies” with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in the fall and jump into “Nottingham,” also with Crowe.

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“You are under the gun -- that’s the reality of it,” says Universal production head Donna Langley.

Another option being considered involves scheduling the biggest action sequences for the month or two before a strike deadline so that there is material to play with in the interim, and then finishing the shoot post-strike. Disney is determined to wrap principal photography on its third “Narnia” film, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” as soon as possible, even as it completes production on the second film, “Prince Caspian.” The visual effects on “Dawn Treader” would be added during any strike interruption.

The quality factor

For all the hurried decision-making going, some are playing it safe on prestige projects. Paramount’s mob drama “The Winter of Frankie Machine” seemed to have a perfect alignment of players: Martin Scorsese directing DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. But the script wasn’t quite right, so rather than rush, the studio decided to put the movie on hold.

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Producers Scott Stuber and Mary Parent (“The Break-Up”) have developed a Charles Randolph screenplay based on Jamie Reidy’s novel “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman,” but seem prepared to sacrifice a quick greenlight to get the elements in place. “There is an awesome director who loves the movie,” says Stuber, “but if we can’t get him or an equally talented director, we won’t make it now.”

At the same time, some studios are finding they have little trouble casting high-profile projects. For its adaptation of “He’s Just Not That Into You,” New Line Cinema was able to attract Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly and Drew Barrymore. “I can’t prove this scientifically,” says production chief Toby Emmerich, “but I feel like the movies wouldn’t have come together this easily if the actors didn’t say, ‘We need to go to work.’ ”

Because they don’t have full slates, Hollywood’s new mini-studios may be the indirect beneficiaries of the hubbub. Since the majors are spending most of their 2008 production capital in the year’s first half, July may roll around -- strike or not -- with all the town’s A-listers out of work, when upstarts such as Summit Entertainment and Overture Films could scoop them up.

“As a new company, we are not going to make a decision because we feel we have to,” says Summit Co-chairman Rob Friedman. “We are going to make decisions that are correct.”

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Overture is making several films ahead of the contract expirations, including “Last Chance Harvey” with Dustin Hoffman. Chairman Chris McGurk says others will have to wait. “We don’t feel the pressure to pull the trigger,” the former Disney, Universal and MGM executive says.

But since so many others do, don’t be surprised if a “Corky Romano” sequel lands in your multiplex next year.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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Horn is a Times staff writer. Fernandez writes Calendar’s Scriptland column.

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Projects with pipeline potential

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A selected list of movies that may -- and may not -- be filmed before the June 30 contract deadlines, including key creative talent (even those rumored to be involved).

Disney

Likely: “High School Musical 3"; “The Proposal,” Sandra Bullock

Iffy: “Through the Looking Glass”; “Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,” Jerry Bruckheimer, producer

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DreamWorks

Likely: “Eagle Eye,” Shia LaBeouf; “Ghost Town,” Greg Kinnear

Iffy: “Dinner for Schmucks,” Sacha Baron Cohen; “Cowboys and Aliens,” Ron Howard, director

20th Century Fox

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Likely: “Wolverine,” Hugh Jackman; “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Keanu Reeves

Iffy: “Magneto,” David Goyer, director; “Hardy Men,” Shawn Levy, director

New Line

Likely: “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker; “He’s Just Not That Into You,” Scarlett Johansson

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Iffy: “A Killing on Carnival Row,” Tom Cruise; “Seventeen,” Zac Efron

Paramount

Likely: “The Love Guru,” Mike Myers; “Nowhereland,” Eddie Murphy

Iffy: “The Fighter,” Matt Damon; “How to Survive a Robot Uprising,” Myers

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Sony

Likely: “Angels & Demons,” Tom Hanks; “Pink Panther 2,” Steve Martin

Iffy: “Fantasy Island,” Eddie Murphy; “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” Tony Scott, director

Universal

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Likely: “The Changeling,” Angelina Jolie; “The Fast and the Furious 4"

Iffy: “Land of the Lost,” Will Ferrell; “Nottingham,” Russell Crowe

Warner Bros.

Likely: “Watchmen,” Zack Snyder, director; “Yes Man,” Jim Carrey

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Iffy: “Justice League of America”; “Men,” Tom Cruise


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