"Justice League of America" is exactly the kind of movie Warner Bros. loves to make. Based on the classic DC Comics series, the script is filled with a dream team of recognizable superheroes -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash -- and could not only become its own franchise, but also could spin off individual character sequels, TV shows and merchandise (Green Lantern Underoos, anyone?).
But even a roster of superheroes may not have enough special powers to repel the nastiest villain on Hollywood's horizon: an impending labor dispute that could devastate the local economy.
"JLA" is but one of many projects caught in an industrywide scramble to assemble films that can be completed before a potential talent strike shuts down film production next summer, according to interviews with two dozen studio executives, agents, producers and screenwriters. Studio executives and producers are accelerating screenplay revisions and A-list directors are postponing editing so they can compile footage on back-to-back movies should actors swap punch lines for picket lines.
The studios are mindful of the mistakes they made in 2001's similarly prolonged contract skirmish, when frenzied decision-making led to miscasting, half-baked screenplays and poorly matched filmmakers. Or, more than usual, anyway. Though a strike never happened, the resulting overabundance of undercooked cinema ("The Truth About Charlie," "Reign of Fire," "Dark Blue") left everyone with a hangover.
The studios' contracts with the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America expire June 30. Their deal with the Writers Guild of America runs out this October, but the WGA is expected to work without a new pact temporarily, hoping the delay will give it more clout as the DGA and SAG contracts also expire. While the guilds have separate demands, they are united in their quest for revenues from new media such as video on demand, Web downloads and cellphone content.
To beat the strike deadlines, the studios must start filming by March 1. While some high-profile projects are coming together quickly, other prominent movies -- "JLA," Will Ferrell's "Land of the Lost," Matt Damon's "The Fighter," Eddie Murphy's "Fantasy Island" -- must clear logistical, financial and political hurdles to move forward.
"The next four weeks are really critical," says Paramount production chief Brad Weston. "Movies are coming together and falling apart by the day."
"JLA" is a perfect test case. With concurrent individual comic book franchises already running -- a "Batman" sequel is in production and a "Superman Returns" sequel is possible -- there's the danger of confusing fans with simultaneous versions of the same characters. Furthermore, the current Batman, Christian Bale, is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after actors and apparently has little interest in an additional trip to the Bat Cave.
"JLA" also could create something of a superhero glut since Warner Bros. greenlighted "Watchmen," another DC Comics adaptation that just started preproduction with "300" director Zack Snyder. Worried that "JLA" might undercut his Batman sequel, "The Dark Knight," director Chris Nolan isn't thrilled with the current "JLA" plans, according to people familiar with his thinking. A spokeswoman for the director said, "Chris Nolan is knee-deep in production on 'The Dark Knight' [and] has not commented on a potential 'JLA' movie or any other project."
Regardless, Warner Bros., which declined to comment, needs to hire a "JLA" director immediately to guide any further rewrites and attract actors. As it is, numerous directors have been passing on the project, although "Happy Feet's" George Miller may end up in the chair. Like any last-minute rescue, time is of the essence.
August is usually when Hollywood takes off for Maui and the Hamptons, but this year a lot of people put off their getaways. "Usually tumbleweeds are blowing through town. Not this summer," says DreamWorks production chief Adam Goodman.
"It's actually a very competitive, overworked summer," says producer John Davis, whose possible projects include "Fantasy Island," in which Murphy will play multiple roles. Compared with a year ago, local film production through the end of June was up nearly 30%.
"Everybody is saying, 'Let's get out of the gate fast and hope no one catches us in the home stretch,' " says Dan Black of the entertainment law firm Greenberg Traurig.
Some top stars are available for only a few weeks between January and June. Ferrell, who's booked through February, has a final March slot that he may use for a remake of TV's "Land of the Lost," directed by Brad Silberling, at Universal.