"It's pencil down until midnight on Halloween," says Oscar-winning writer-producer Akiva Goldsman. That's his current schedule as he tries to finish up his latest draft of "Angels and Demons," the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code," before the Writers Guild contract expires Oct. 31. "It's unavoidably intensely stressful, but it's the way of the world right now."
Just last week, guild members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a new contract couldn't be worked out with the studios and networks. All over town, executives, agents, producers and writers are nervously girding for what might be the biggest labor confrontation in 20 years. Depending on how negotiations go, the strike could come as early as Nov. 1, although the guild could always choose to continue negotiating under the existing contract. Nevertheless, almost everyone in town is gripped by a sense of foreboding, as it remains unclear how the talks between the guild and the studios will pan out. "Everybody is living in the impending doom," Goldsman said.
While a writers strike would affect TV production almost immediately, given that most shows stockpile only a few scripts at a time, the movie business would have its own set of problems. Because of the complicated logistics and special effects of most event movies, it can take months of preparation to get a blockbuster ready to shoot, preferably with a finished script. Studios start their planning years ahead, staking out prime release dates on the calendar. Recently, the studios have all but stopped hiring writers to crack books or write new screenplays as they plow their resources into readying films that need to go immediately, say various agents and executives.
"People are freaking," said one top literary agent. "It's unknown territory. No one knows how this is going to work. Studios are trying to figure out how to do without writers, and everyone out there who writes for a living is trying to figure out how to keep making a living."
Both sides of the divide are busy parsing the recently issued WGA strike rules, which are geared to make it as difficult as possible to continue shooting films without writers. For instance, members would be barred from finessing dialogue to suit an actor, changing stage directions because a location got rained out, or even changing a beverage from Coke to vitamin water because the proper product clearance couldn't be secured.
Writers Guild general counsel Tony Segall said "a ton" of writers and their representatives have been calling with questions, perhaps because most of them have never been through a strike before. Roughly two-thirds of the membership were not in the guild during the 1988 strike.
While studios routinely start production without a finished script, no one wants to take that chance in this climate, so there is a rush to lock down scripts in completely finished form before the WGA contract runs out.
"Given what's at stake and the [time] we have left, our writers on every project are working under inhuman amounts of pressure," said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who is producing "G.I. Joe," Paramount Pictures' would-be tent-pole movie for summer 2009, which as of last week hadn't even been officially greenlighted.
In September, the "G.I. Joe" team hired "Collateral" scribe Stuart Beattie to begin a total overhaul of the script. Beattie turned in his first draft by the beginning of October and is now busily working on a second set of revisions, which are due back to Paramount on Oct. 31.
"G.I Joe" is hardly the only potential 2009 blockbuster rushing to meet the strike deadline. Oscar winner Paul Haggis is plowing through James Bond 22. Since Oct. 1, Oscar nominee Scott Frank has been holed up with director Shawn Levy trying to pound out a shootable version of "Night at the Museum 2." For the last two weeks, Billy Ray has been polishing up "State of Play," a political thriller starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton that has already passed through the hands of "The Kingdom's" Matthew Carnahan, "The Bourne Identity's" Tony Gilroy and "The Queen's" Peter Morgan.
Just last week, 20th Century Fox issued an announcement that the studio was laying claim to May 1, 2009, as the release date for its big-budget sci-fi spinoff "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" starring Hugh Jackman. This was just days after it issued an urgent SOS to the major agencies looking for a quick rewrite person. Another 2009 movie recently looking for polishes was "Four Christmases," the Vince Vaughn-Reese Witherspoon holiday yarn. The studios pay top "script doctors" $250,000 to $300,000 per week to polish screenplays.
According to one top agent, almost every studio has at least two films on the schedule that will have trouble meeting the accelerated deadline. As one studio production topper noted, "We're exposed on two movies that aren't ready, but we don't have any guns to our heads. Most of our scripts are in solid shape; it's not a mad scramble." He declined to enumerate the problem films.
Most of the 2008 event movies -- titles like "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and the big-screen version of "Sex and the City" -- are expected to roll without problem into the theaters next summer. Sources say "Star Trek," which is slated for Christmas 2009, will take off as planned and start filming next month.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has writers trying to beat the strike deadline for both "G-Force" and "Confessions of a Shopaholic," the big-screen adaptation of the Sophie Kinsella bestseller. Of "Shopaholic" he says, "the writer should be done in the next [few] days." Conversely, Bruckheimer has decided to wait until the labor unrest is completely resolved to begin shooting his next juggernaut, "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time," based on the popular video game.
Like many writers, Billy Ray says he's just keeping his head down and writing as fast as he can. "I take my children to school in the morning, I'm at my desk by 9, somebody feeds me at 1, I'm usually back at my desk at 1:30 and write to 5. The only difference is now I'm generally writing until 7." Just because he's productive doesn't mean Ray's not worried. "This strike would be such a total calamity for everybody involved," he said.
Indeed, there is a palpable fear around town that even if the strike is averted or short-lived there will be a replay of 2001, when, due to a threatened writers strike, the studios jammed sub-quality films into production, just so the pipelines would stay filled.
"Next year, there's going to be a plethora of bad movies -- movies that were rushed because of the supposed strike," said producer Todd Black, who has two films in pre-production at Columbia: "Seven Pounds," a romantic drama starring Will Smith, and a remake of the crime thriller "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" starring Denzel Washington. Black insists that there's going to be "no rushing" on his movies. "I don't want to make bad movies. And whatever is going to happen is going to happen."
Still, whatever the outcome, October 2007 will go down in movie history as either one of the most productive months in recent memory or the most stress-provoking.
"Unfortunately, it's part of our business," Bruckheimer said. "I lived through the last one, which lasted for almost six months. You somehow survive through it. It hurts the business. It hurts the writers more. Whatever they gain, they never get back the time they're down."
Jay A. Fernandez, John Horn, Chris Lee and Gina Piccalo contributed to this story.