The increasingly nasty strike by commercial actors, now in its fourth month, is inadvertently pushing the Hollywood production machine into high gear.

Hollywood studios' contracts with screenwriters and actors aren't set to expire until next May and June, respectively. But the tension resulting from the commercial actors' strike has Hollywood executives nervous about a possible protracted industrywide shutdown next year.

As a result, studios are speeding up the pace at which they're buying scripts and green-lighting new projects, just to make sure they'll have enough movies in the can.

There are also signs that the sound stages around L.A. are filling up for the months ahead, as studios and networks move to secure space to shoot in advance.

"This is the time when we start to get calls for the spring, and we're getting more calls for television productions than usual," said Linda Sullivan, general manager of the 35,000-square-foot Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica Air Center, a popular film set. "That shows that other, smaller stages in town are filling up for this period, because we tend to get the overflow."

One studio executive said all the studios around town are beefing up production in the event of a strike by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild.

"They are trying to do as much as possible now because if the actors go on strike, they won't be able to do anything at all except for post-production (work)," the executive said.

Likewise, producers have started buying or optioning as much material as possible. That way, if writers go on strike, producers will have enough finished scripts to continue making movies and television shows.

In addition, they'll try to shoot as many movies and TV shows as possible this coming spring so they'll have enough product to last through the summer and fall and, if necessary, even into the following year.

"There is no sense of panic yet, but (studios and networks) are definitely trying to get their ducks in a row," said Bill Sibley, a screenwriter who has just been hired by a television producer for a project that has to be shot by February. "It will become clear in the coming months whether the parties are in a talking mood. If it looks like nobody is willing to negotiate, you'll see that they will option everything they can get their hands on."

Thus, in the short term at least, writers, actors and crew members could be extremely busy as producers try to get projects made that they might otherwise have postponed or even passed on.

No end in sight

Much of the activity has been sparked by the current contract dispute between SAG and the advertising industry, which is seen by many as a bad omen for what might happen next summer. That conflict has become increasingly confrontational, with no negotiations taking place and with SAG accusing the advertisers of trying to bust the union.

Because SAG represents commercial actors along with film and television actors, the union has left little doubt that the current strike is a preamble for next summer.

"Whatever we achieve or fail to achieve this year will reverberate to next year," said William Daniels, president of SAG. "There certainly can be a domino effect."

The commercial actors' strike is deadlocked over the issue of residuals. Currently, those actors receive residuals (royalties paid each time a commercial is aired) only for broadcast TV spots. They are negotiating to also receive residuals for spots shown on cable TV. Advertisers, meanwhile, are negotiating to pay a flat fee, with no residuals at all.

"It's too early to tell, but if you look at the commercial strike, it certainly doesn't look very encouraging," said Morrie Goldman, a spokesman for the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a local nonprofit. "And if the doomsday scenario for next summer takes place, that would be devastating for the local film industry."

Bad news for economy

Indeed, the EIDC estimates that the current strike is costing the local economy $1 million a day in lost revenues. That would be pocket change, however, compared to a complete shutdown of film and TV production in Los Angeles, considering the industry employs more than 70,000 people and generates an estimated $24 billion in annual receipts.

Whereas the advertising industry has basically been able to skirt the union by making commercials with non-union actors at locations beyond the reach of picketing strikers outside Los Angeles and New York the studios and networks would find it much harder to take a similar route.

Commercial actors, for better or worse, are pretty much interchangeable. But movies and television series depend very much on the drawing power of a particular star or group of cast members. After all, you can't make "Friends" without the cast of "Friends."

By the same token, the studios will be loath to let a scab writers tinker with, for example, a Joe Esterhas script, should the writers go on strike.

But even though the acrimonious commercial actors' strike has put Hollywood on alert that trouble might lie ahead, some industry insiders believe it also may have a positive impact on next year's negotiations.

"After seeing what happened with this strike, they may actually be more inclined to seek a compromise," said Alan Brunswick, an entertainment industry lawyer. "Both the majors and the unions will have to see that there's really no such thing as winning when you negotiate a contract. Those parties will (realize they) have to make compromises."

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