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Long Writers Strike : Labor Strife Reads Like Stale Script

May 10, 1988|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood can't come to terms with its writers, and Best Auto Painting in Sun Valley is paying the price.

That's because owner Jeff Rassouli hasn't been getting the usual referrals from nearby Studio Picture Vehicles, a rental service where 175 car drivers are out of work and business is down 68%, largely because of a 10-week-old strike by the Writers Guild.

"It started a couple weeks ago. We were affected pretty badly," said Rassouli, who figures the strike is costing him $400 a day.

Rassouli isn't the only one bleeding as a result of the entertainment industry's latest labor strife.

War of Attrition

Like Iran and Iraq, Hollywood producers and their writers have become mired in a grinding war of attrition, which began after their triennial contract talks collapsed March 6.

If history is any indication, no one is likely to emerge a clear winner. Writers strikes in 1960, 1973, 1981 and 1985 generally ended with compromises that left both sides less than completely satisfied.

But mounting casualties--perhaps worse than either writers or producers anticipated--are already straining the guild, damaging network schedules, emptying studio lots and hurting thousands of people in other businesses, many of whom, like Rassouli, are not directly allied with any of the combatants.

The California Film Commission estimates that the movie and television industry contributes $6.5 billion a year to the California economy. It employs, directly and indirectly, about 230,000 people, most of them in the Los Angeles area.

Damage Mounting

The strike's impact on that sizable industry was initially muted because many TV shows were closing for a seasonal "hiatus," and dozens of movie scripts had already been written for films that will be shot this summer.

But damage is rising fast as the walkout enters its third month, bringing work on future movies and TV shows to a near halt:

- Agents are going without commissions, studio suppliers are laying off employees and tables are suddenly available in some popular Hollywood hangouts. "Art's Deli is half full. At Hampton's, you can get a table anytime you want," Alvin Rush, chairman of MCA's television group, said last week of two popular studio hangouts.

Slow and Tiresome

At Movieland Caterers, where billings normally run $225,000 a month, owner Allan Stearns said business fell to $55,000 in April as "Cheers," "Brothers" and other TV shows were shut down by the strike.

"This is getting kind of tiresome," Stearns said of repeated labor problems in the entertainment industry. This time around, he's already laid off 30 employees and maintains that his business is jeopardized by heavy monthly truck and rent payments.

- Among writers, big earners appear to have been hit first. According to the companies, about 350 highly paid television writer-producers were suspended by their studios from lucrative development deals that can pay even the lesser lights $5,000 a week. (Yet a few of the top writer-producers--for instance, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz of "thirtysomething"--say they are still receiving payments because they are producing a pilot show from a completed script.)

Some top earners, believing that they have little to gain from a strike, are privately exploring strategies for ending the walkout. A few have discussed eventual secession from the guild or a restructuring under which highly paid writers would have more voting power than members who don't work.

- At the networks, profits might actually rise in the short term. Duff & Phelps TV analyst John Goss says the lower ratings and advertising rates that might accompany a season of reruns could be offset by lower programming costs. CBS has postponed its fall season premiere to late October from Sept. 5, and the other two networks say they may delay theirs until late November if production does not resume by July.

Others warn that the already weakened networks might permanently lose market share as more viewers sample cable TV and videocassettes. "The ultimate concern is that people will collectively say 'to heck with the networks,' " said John S. Reidy, an analyst with the investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert.

- With virtually all work on fall TV shows suspended, big studios and small production companies alike are laying off hundreds of clerical employees and making few plans to call back an estimated 20,000 actors and production crew members who would normally begin reporting to work in June.

Bernie Brillstein, chairman of Lorimar-Telepictures' movie unit, denied rumors that the big independent studio was about to close the commissary on its Culver City lot. But companies as financially strong as MCA's Universal Studios have slashed expenses by reducing payments for the support staff of movie and TV producers on their lots. "No one is in, due to the writers strike," says the answering machine at TV producer Bill Sackheim's office at Universal.

Fixing the Blame

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