Industry awakes, plays catch-up

Times Staff Writers

With the strike over, the salvage operation begins.

Hollywood lurched back into gear this week, reviving projects sidelined by the three-month labor dispute with its writers.

For broadcast television, which felt the brunt of the work stoppage, the most pressing issues center on the prospects for next season. Studios are now rushing to piece together a truncated pilot season.

Even with a limited pool of new shows to choose from, the networks plan to roll out some kind of fall season. CBS and ABC said Thursday they would join Fox in holding upfront presentations in New York in mid-May, when the networks showcase their new schedules for advertisers.


The week of presentations -- usually lavish affairs that cost up to $5 million per network -- kicks off the period in which broadcasters sell the bulk of their commercial time for the coming TV season.

NBC plans a low-key approach this year, although the network has not yet provided specifics. Overall, the upfronts are likely to be scaled back, in part because broadcasters won’t have a bevy of new shows.

“This year it might be more of a meeting-like presentation, but we have plenty to talk about to our advertisers,” said Mike Shaw, ABC’s president of sales and marketing.

Still, the delayed pilot season has left the industry playing catch-up. In a typical February, most pilot scripts have been finished, and producers are busy casting, location scouting or building sets. By March, between 110 and 120 pilots are in production, about 40 of which get picked up as new series.

Instead, studios that had pilot scripts in hand before the strike are now weighing which ones to produce, while writers who hadn’t finished their drafts before the walkout are racing to complete them.

“Everyone is scrambling,” said Cyrus Voris, who is developing two pilots with writing partner Ethan Reiff, one for CBS and another for the CW.


“The basic sense is that we’ve got a week or two to get our scripts in, or else they’ll automatically be written off,” Voris said.

Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, said the studio’s development staff was in touch with its writers.

“We’re not giving people hard-and-fast deadlines,” he said. “We’re just making them aware of the competitive advantage they’ll get if they’re able to turn their script in sooner rather than later.”

Newman estimated that his studio had 50 to 60 pilot scripts in the works, including one from popular TV producer Joss Whedon, whose new Fox series, “Dollhouse,” was ordered from a pitch two weeks before the strike began. Whedon is now busy writing both the pilot script and scenes for auditions.

Even with projects getting fast-tracked, some pilots won’t be finished by the time the networks have to decide their schedules. Newman said, “My guess is that they will make decisions on projects they believe in off [daily footage], rough assemblages or trailers.”

The abrupt shift into work mode this week has been jarring for all involved.

“I feel a little bit like we’re all Rip Van Winkle or Snow White,” said producer Tom Fontana, who returned to work this week on “The Philanthropist,” a drama originally set to air on NBC this spring. “We’ve all been kind of sleeping, on both sides.”


“It’s really surreal,” agreed producer Chuck Lorre. Both of Lorre’s CBS comedies, “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” will produce nine more episodes for this season, all in the next 12 weeks, which means his 200-person staff will be back at work by next week, sooner than most.

“We’ll be working seven days a week for the next three months, and we’ll be happy to do it to pull this off,” Lorre said.

Greg Berlanti, whose company produces three dramas for ABC, “Brothers & Sisters,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Eli Stone,” described the activity in his office as a “sonic boom.”

ABC has ordered four episodes of “Brothers & Sisters” to air this spring and six or seven more to get a head start on next season in case the Screen Actors Guild decides to strike this summer.

Not all writing staffs are back at work. The CW said Thursday that, after eight seasons, “Girlfriends” has been canceled, while Fox said “24” will not return until January.

Because film production works on a slower schedule, the end of the strike did not have as dramatic an effect on moviemaking. But it did trigger a flurry of new writing.


Days before the strike ended, producers and executives began calling literary agents, outlining their top movie script priorities. Among the most important assignments are high-profile productions in need of rewrites. By Thursday, agents were frantically trying to match clients with assignments.

But it was unclear how many -- if any -- new movies would be greenlighted to start production before the threatened actors strike.

With cameras rolling this week on Paramount’s “G.I. Joe,” the studio brought in screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) to tweak the screenplay.

For potential future movies, Sony is looking for writers on a remake of 1968’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and the long-delayed movie version of “I Dream of Jeannie,” tentatively starring Katherine Heigl.

Fox is looking for screenplay help for its romantic comedy “Bride Wars,” and Dimension Films hopes to move forward on “The $6 Billion Man,” a loose remake of the TV series, possibly with Eddie Murphy. Warner Bros. is looking to hire writers for “Superman 2” and Paramount is developing a Billy Crystal comedy.




Times staff writers John Horn, Meg James and Lynn Smith contributed to this report.