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Hollywood shakes as writers prepare to strike

By Andrew Gumbel

The good news about the Hollywood writers' strike, expected to start any day now, is that there will still be plenty of films to nominate for this year's Academy Awards.

The not-so-good news is that there may be no writers on hand to spice up next February's ceremony with the usual witty banter.

Anyone wanting to change channels that night may not find a whole lot else to watch, either. The Writers Guild of America, the union representing film and television writers, has finally confirmed what everyone was alternately dreading and expecting – that it will call its members out on strike, probably starting on Monday, in an effort to force the studios and network heads to offer proper compensation for work appearing on the Internet and other new media outlets.

The WGA leadership told about 3000 writers who crammed into the Los Angeles Convention Center on Thursday night that it was opting for industrial action. Both the Screen Actors Guild and the Teamsters union, which represents drivers, location scouts and animal wranglers, among other industry workers, have announced their intention to respect WGA picket lines.

The WGA board was meeting yesterday to decide on an exact timetable for initiating the strike, and on a picketing strategy, little of which was expected to be made public ahead of time.

Given the intransigence of the two sides, the stoppage is unlikely to be brief. Much may depend on the actors' and directors' guilds, who share many of the writers' grievances and whose contracts are up for renegotiation next June. A nightmare scenario would have all three guilds on strike, at which point Hollywood would be forced to shutter its doors completely— a scenario the boss class is likely to try to counter with a divide and conquer strategy to pit the guilds against each other.

Since writers originate projects that then take several weeks, if not months or years, to see the light of day, their strike will have a slow ripple effect on the entertainment industry – starting with the late-night chat shows and topical satire programs and slowly seeping through episodic television. Feature films won't feel the pressure until next summer at the earliest.

Oscars season could well be crunch time. If the strike is still in force then – not impossible, given that the last writers' strike in 1988 lasted five months – it will give TV networks the unenviable choice of keeping failing programmes on the air because they still have completed scripts to shoot, or replacing them with something else that does not require the services of a writer. (American viewers are bracing for a lot of reruns which, in the DVD age, are not as appealing as they once were.)

One man to feel a little sorry for is Jon Stewart, the comedian who hosts the smash-hit news satire programme The Daily Show and is also about to do his second stint as host of the Academy Awards. His weeknight programme is expected to go into reruns immediately, then be replaced with an as yet unknown replacement as time goes on.

That will give him plenty of time, of course, to work on his opening monologue for the Oscars, except that writing that monologue would be a violation of strike rules. Gil Cates, the producer who runs the Oscars, is hoping against hope the strike will be over long before February 24.

Belfast Telegraph

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