If not for an epic struggle between alien robots, the streets of Los Angeles might be devoid of major studio drama.
Filming of big-budget movies has ground to a virtual halt across the city and much of the county, a slowdown partly driven by scheduling decisions studios made a year ago to prepare for a possible actors strike.
Only one major studio film, DreamWorks SKG's sci-fi flick "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," is shooting on location in Los Angeles, compared with seven studio films that were in production this time last year, according to FilmL.A., the nonprofit group that coordinates film permits for Los Angeles and in unincorporated areas of the county.
The only other major studio production underway is Ron Howard's "Da Vinci Code" prequel "Angels & Demons," which is shooting on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City.
"We've had a substantial drop-off," said Ed Brown, business agent for Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents set decorators, prop makers and special effects technicians, among other crafts. About 3,500 of the union's 5,500 active members are still working, he said.
That's a decrease of nearly 10% from last year at this time, Brown said, adding that the decline would have been steeper if not for continued strength in local television production and a steady flow of smaller-budget films, whose producers have signed agreements with the Screen Actors Guild to allow them to film.
The Los Angeles region has seen a steady outflow of feature film projects to other countries and states, about 40 of which now offer a plethora of production rebates and tax breaks that aren't available in California. Since peaking in 1996, annual film production has declined in nine of the last 11 years in Los Angeles.
But Brown and others in the industry say the slowdown has been exacerbated by labor unrest this year, which saw the first Hollywood writers strike in two decades.
To plan for a possible actors strike, studios decided as far back as a year ago to revamp their lineups so that most films would wrap shooting by June 30, when the actors contract expired. As a result, studios have already filmed most of the movies that will be released in 2009, leaving them with fewer movies to shoot this year.
"We had 17 films in production between January and June, which is unheard of," said Donna Langley, president of production for Universal Pictures, which recently shot "Fast and Furious," the fourth film in "The Fast and the Furious" series, in L.A. "We all had to prepare for the worst-case scenario."
Actors and studios have not been able to reach agreement on a new contract and the sides remain far apart, especially in how actors are paid for work distributed in new media.
Still, most studio executives now think an actors strike is unlikely and are moving ahead with big-budget films. Universal Pictures next month will begin shooting the Judd Apatow comedy "Funny People" in L.A., and Warner Bros. has two films that could shoot locally this fall.
As usual, however, most of the filming will occur outside of Southern California. Disney recently began filming "Prince of Persia" in Morocco, Warner Bros. is wrapping Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" in Michigan (which recently offered a rebate of as much as 42% on production spending), and 20th Century Fox is shooting a sequel to "Night at the Museum" in Vancouver, Canada, as well as "X-Men Origins" in New Zealand.
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the acceleration and subsequent falloff in filming that occurred in 2001, when studios prepared for possible strikes by actors and writers.
Similarly, the flurry of activity this summer before and shortly after the expiration of the actors contract caused a spike in film shoots. Permitted production days for on-location film shoots jumped nearly 10% in the second quarter, making it the busiest three-month period in eight years.
How long the current lull lasts remains to be seen.
The falloff in studio feature production has been mitigated by the ongoing surge in on-location shoots for scripted television, which are up nearly 40% this month over last year, largely because the writers strike caused producers to ramp up production for the fall season earlier than usual.
Film shoots for independent features also have been brisk, thanks to hundreds of agreements the Screen Actors Guild has signed that would allow producers to continue filming in the event of a strike. But independent films don't pack the same economic punch as major studio productions, which have much larger budgets and employ hundreds of crew members.
"When you consider the amount of money that's spent on vendors and salaries, they definitely have a bigger impact," said Todd Lindgren, spokesman for FilmL.A. "We just have to wait and keep our fingers crossed that these big productions will come back."