Let’s picture America’s fast-food junkies waking up to discover that all their favorite burger, pizza and barbecue joints have been replaced with salad bars.Something like that may be happening at the movie theater, thanks to the strike by Hollywood writers.
Two months into the work stoppage, the main victims have been boob tube addicts. Most scripted TV shows have aired their last fresh episodes, leaving couch potatoes with little to look forward to save reality series, sporting events, the cable film channels and reruns.
Moviegoers, on the other hand, are months away from feeling the effects of the strike. With a pipeline of two to three years between the purchase of a script and the appearance of the finished film in your local theater, it could take a year or more for the ripple effects of the labor dispute to be felt on movie screens.
You’ll probably notice nothing different in 2008. Filming ended months ago for this spring and summer’s big tent pole pictures — like the new “Indiana Jones” movie. Same goes for next Christmas’ crop of titles — most are far enough along that the Writers Guild strike won’t affect them.
But 2009 could be a dicey year for the big studios and exhibitors.
Even if the strike is settled by late winter, it’s not like someone will simply throw a switch and the movie production machine will leap into action. Crews have been dismantled and people laid off. It will take weeks to rehire and rebuild. Some movies that were set to begin filming when the strike was called could be abandoned as stars take other gigs and financing falls apart.
Worse, relatively few screenplays will be ready to film. The longest part of any movie’s trip to the screen is “development,” when a script is written and rewritten, negotiations are held with directors and actors, and financing is put together.
Guild members have been forbidden to participate in development during the strike, meaning that even if a settlement is reached by April, it’s unlikely that many productions — at least the big, flashy ones on which Hollywood relies — could go in front of the cameras before fall.
What will this mean for moviegoers?
Big expensive action and f/x films will be in short supply. Even animation will take a hit … particularly since animated features have super-long development periods, with rewriting going on even after the production has begun.
With a paucity of big-budget, big-star movies, what will fill the nation’s movie screens?
Expect lots of “little” dramas and comedies, films made by independents that have been kicking around the festival circuit. In years past, many of these would have found a home on DVD. Now some of them will be snapped up by studios desperate for fresh product.
Don’t be surprised if foreign-language films make a comeback. While the American movie industry lies fallow, moviemakers around the globe continue to work. In recent years, foreign films have been an inconsequential part of the American film diet, but you can bet that studio acquisition chiefs have their radar set for any foreign title that might play to Yank audiences.
Ditto for documentaries. We’re in a golden age of nonfiction films, a fact reflected in their astonishing quality if not in their ho-hum ticket sales. Maybe they’ll have a chance in the marketplace when the drumbeating din of the Hollywood publicity machine is dampened by lack of flashy films.
Of course, just because you put a movie in the theater doesn’t mean anyone will pay to see it. The mass movie-going audience could simply retreat into video games and DVD libraries until the film biz returns to normal.
But maybe a few adventurous (or desperate) cases will be exposed to movies they otherwise would be ignorant of.
I’d like to think so, anyway.