Seismic shift

Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer. Contact her at rachel.abramowitz

'Shoot, I've got to get off the phone. They're picketing our set," said the producer as he slammed down the receiver.

Just another typical day in Hollywood, where BlackBerrys had stopped buzzing, agents had stopped twitching with testosterone-powered purposefulness, writers marched around with signs and popped Advil for their lower backs and executives aimlessly roamed the halls of Burbank hoping they wouldn't find pink slips in their mailboxes. And let's not forget the late-night hosts who grew funny beards and interviewed labor economists and each other rather than make small talk with Pamela Anderson or Brad Pitt. Another few weeks like this, and Jay and Conan could find themselves interviewing the inventor of antifungal foot cream.

Though it could well be settled by the time you read this, the Writers Guild strike and its repercussions have sent Hollywood into its version of a coma, a hazy dream-like state where the lucky complain about their TiVo options and face existential questions about how to organize their time now that work doesn't occupy 20 hours of their day, and the unlucky pull their kids out of private schools, watch their nest eggs dwindle and hope they won't lose their houses.

Obviously, no one's been partying. Not at studio-hosted Golden Globe bashes. Not privately. Even the movie premieres seem to have downscaled, as publicists sent word that appearing too festive is bad for a star's image. Gone are fancy lunches hosted by the machers with fat wallets--i.e., agents--as agencies such as United Talent Agency and International Creative Management slashed not only expense accounts but also salaries in an effort to avoid extensive layoffs.

"I'm coming into the office and surfing the Web and doing crossword puzzles and reading books," says Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Scott Frank. Pre-strike, he had his day packed to the nanosecond, writing his own scripts and doctoring others' scripts for films rushing toward production. Lately, he's been picketing and procrastinating. "Every time I sit down to write, I end up going online. It's pathetic. Everybody feels totally discombobulated. It's like the way people feel after a natural disaster. People have lost their routines around which they organize their lives."

Even hype, an entertainment industry staple, felt its days numbered. "The first people to be let go are publicists," says publicist Elizabeth Much. Much owns her own firm and remembers the writers strike of 1988. "I knew then there was no way I could have only actors as clients. I'm so grateful that my PR firm is not entirely reliant on the entertainment industry."

It used to be fun to mock the pretensions and glitz of awards season, but the loss of at least some red carpet festivities has turned out to be demoralizing for the town. Instead of glamming it up in designer-loaned gowns, Golden Globe winners got to hear about their victories in the most mundane circumstances--best director Julian Schnabel was standing in JFK airport, waiting for his luggage, when he heard his name on TV. Other winners--such as French actress Marion Cotillard--watched the televised news conference in their hotel rooms. And, of course, all of Hollywood has been fretting that the hallowed Oscars could become the strike's highest-profile casualty. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was forced to make preparations for two Oscar shows, one with writers and stars and one without. Perhaps that question will be settled by the time you read this, but anxiety over it has taken quite a toll.

And what about the careers that could go unwatered just as they had started to blossom? Will this year's new Oscar hopefuls, such as James McAvoy and Casey Affleck, see their breakouts eclipsed in the strike haze, like the athletes who were denied their shot at Olympic gold in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games?

"It's starting to hurt because we have Marion Cotillard for best actress," notes Bob Berney, chairman at Picturehouse, who's been pushing the French actress for her performance in "La Vie en Rose." "The strike is starting to hurt those people's careers. All the work they did--it's now not being honored. Not to mention the work they're not doing" because of the strike.

Fame and talent can be fleeting. (Seen Louise Fletcher recently? Hmmm, didn't think so. And she actually won the darn gold statue.) In this climate, it's clear why talent--writers, directors and stars--love residuals, those lovely paychecks that come from the studios for reusing initial work, as when TV shows are broadcast in Hong Kong or a feature film becomes a DVD. Residuals are part of the town's social compact, a security blanket for the inevitable day when wrinkles arrive, the zeitgeist changes or the magical mojo that stokes creativity disappears.

The biggest question is when--if ever--life in Hollywood will return to normal. When will Los Angeles be freed from the tsunami of gloom that has rolled through Burbank, Beverly Hills and the Westside?

At last we're seeing a glimmer of cautious optimism. Given the recent agreement struck between the Directors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, maybe a resolution to the Writers Guild strike will come in the nick of time to save the Oscars from going on without George Clooney or Angelina Jolie.

But then again, can the months of brewing hostility just be swept under the red carpet? Can stalled careers get fired back up as if nothing had happened? The prognosis doesn't look rosy for those already laid off, or whose writing and producing deals were terminated by the studios because of the strike. And what happens if the writers and studios can't, after all, come to terms? Can writers forgive directors--or other writers? Can Teamsters forgive writers? Can writers forgive producers?

A savvy former studio honcho, known for his ability to distill spreadsheets as easily as chew gum, recently offered a sobering analysis of what could happen if the strike were to go on into the summer. His forecast is bad: The networks would air something like 14 reality shows this spring, and when one hit big, newish shows with real writers--such as "Chuck," "Gossip Girl" and "Rules of Engagement"--would get shelved, meaning that writers and actors would lose their jobs. Pilot season would be killed, scratching the annual winter and spring rite of creating and filming new shows for the fall. Fewer pilots would get made, and more writers and actors would be out of work.

It would be the end of television as we know it as the niche-ification of cable entertainment grew to 1 billion channels, one for every vegan, sci-fi- addicted, only-black-wearing geek in Omaha. Then writers would opt out, and the writers union would die. And oh yes, this was his last nugget of wisdom: The moguls--the gang atop the AMPTP--wouldn't give a . . . well, you know the word. It's not personal. It's just about money, he said.

Then there's the alternative view that all the actors and writers would end up working for Google or YouTube or something being invented right now by a 16-year-old in Oakland. Then, sure enough, the talent would bail out of the studio system for companies willing to make them partners, not just occasional employees.

And what about the resigned middle view, that this strike is just a harbinger of more labor battles?

"There is something deep and profound going on in the country as a whole. There's a major change in technology that's ongoing, and we're adapting to it in a business negotiation," says writer-director David Koepp ("Spider-Man," "Jurassic Park"), who's editing his new film "Ghost Town" when he's not picketing.

Summarizing the major debate between the studios and the writers, Koepp says, "There is a philosophical disagreement over the ownership of the Internet. No one fully understands what the impact of the technology will be. Rather than one big seismic negotiation, there is going to be a series of negotiations over the next 10 years as the technology shakes out. The rhetoric on both sides can get rather hysterical because people don't understand what the parameters" of the new business model are.

These are the times when the masses need their opiates. Oops. Only 1,000 hours of "Law & Order" reruns are available. What about 300-pound dancing-singing celebrities trying to kill each other on a desert island?

At least politics has come to the audience's rescue, providing the best soap opera/reality show on the airwaves. Who knows, maybe the populace is turning out in droves because the election is becoming the best show in town, and interactive to boot.

Consider the story of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Larry Karaszweski ("The People vs. Larry Flynt"), who left his home in Los Angeles for a round of knocking on doors for Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire. He went solo, without a fancy Hollywood contingent, driving a rented car from New York City.

"It's like Coachella for politics, " he said on the phone from Hanover, N.H. "For a political junkie, it's great. Today I saw Barack Obama speak and then went to a McCain rally, and I'm going to see Bill Clinton in a little while. All I've been doing in L.A. is walking back and forth in front of a studio and getting people to honk."

When he arrived at Clinton's headquarters, "They handed me a [Hillary] sign and said, 'Try to get people to honk.' I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"

Feel better now? As William Goldman famously said in another context: Nobody knows anything. Not when the strike will end. Not how many billions lie in the treasure chest of the Internet. Not if kids will be watching TV in a decade on mammoth sets, on portable screens made for their pinkies or even at all. The strike will end someday (if it hasn't already), but the unease could be here to stay.

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