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The Year of a Humbled Hollywood

THE OSCARS

Labor contract impasses and pending corporate mergers put the film industry in a less than festive mood.

March 19, 2001|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

En route to the academy's annual nominee luncheon last week, "Gladiator" producer Doug Wick was surprised to hear his driver turn and ask, "If there is a strike, what will that do to the limo business?"

"Then one of the other nominees at the table said their driver had brought up the same subject," recalls Wick, whose film is up for best picture. "Everyone was talking about the same slowdown in the business, although the people in the post-production side of the business--editors, sound people--got to walk a lot taller, because they won't feel any impact from a strike for almost a year."

While nominees jet from award show to award show, the mood for the rest of Hollywood remains glum. Indeed, for those not directly involved in the festivities, the hubbub of the Oscar season sounds much like the band playing as the Titanic went down, so palpable is the sense of foreboding that has begun to circle the industry. They must not only contend with strike woes, but with the uncertain impact of mega-mergers such as Time Warner-AOL and Universal-Vivendi, and the recent stock market collapse.

"It doesn't seem to me that the Oscars are on the tip of everybody's tongue as usual," says Academy Award-winning producer Mark Johnson, who is trying to finish four films before the strike deadline. "The town is definitely slowing down. The apocalyptic thinking is that if you don't have a job now, you might not have a job for the entire year."

Says William Morris agent John Fogelman: "The Oscars have been eclipsed by the strike. People aren't talking about something ceremonious when they're afraid their friend's going to lose his house. This is not a time to celebrate. This is a very sobering moment."

Indeed, although the possible writers' strike wouldn't begin until May 2, and the actors' strike not until two months later, the potential labor unrest has cast a shadow of worry over Hollywood's annual season of self-congratulation. "It reminds me how the people in the 'Little House on the Prairie' books talk about the snowstorm, with that slight anxiety over how disruptive it might be," says "Gladiator's" Wick.

Instead of merely fielding queries about their designer togs, actors walking the red carpet to the various guild and critic award ceremonies have been peppered with questions from reporters about the brewing labor turmoil. Guests at the Writers Guild of America dinner were greeted with tiny WGA buttons with tags declaring "in solidarity," as well as a half-hour speech from guild President John Wells about the breakdown of early negotiations between the writers and studios. At the Directors Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild Awards, respective guild presidents Jack Shea and William Daniels made similar, albeit briefer, remarks.

"It's fascinating, there's so much excitement about the Oscars, but virtually everyone you talk to is terrified about the potential strike," says producer Dan Jinks, who won an Oscar last year for producing "American Beauty." "It's difficult to have a conversation that doesn't involve the strike.

"Any producer who has a deal--that deal could be in jeopardy," adds Jinks, noting the widespread fear that the studios will use the opportunity of the strike to ax deals. "You worry about not only yourself but your employees."

To publicist Catherine Olim, who represents Oscar host Steve Martin and best actor nominee Ed Harris, there's a "sense of urgency in the town. Everyone is incredibly busy, not just because of the Oscars. Actors are shooting films back-to-back in case there's a strike."

Other factors as well are tamping down the normal pre-Oscar giddiness. Although some applaud the wide-open nature of many of the races, the lack of a heavy favorite--"Gladiator" is thought to be the leading contender, but by no means a shoo-in--seems to have dampened the rooting interest in any one film. Unlike past years, there is no tidal wave of industry support coalescing around pictures as it did for films such as "Titanic" or last year's best picture winner, "American Beauty."

Some critics have even questioned whether this crop of nominees merits their accolades.

"A lot of people feel that the movies are not exciting," says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which released best picture nominee "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." He clearly disagrees. "The fact is that four of the five films will have grossed $100 million before the Oscars. I don't think you can go back to a year like that. It's a really positive thing that they're now picking movies that are artistic and successful. Usually the film needs an Oscar to get wider recognition, like 'Driving Miss Daisy.' "

A Sobering Shift by Party Planners

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