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Seismic shift

Will life in Hollywood ever return to normal?

February 03, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Rachel Abramowitz is a Times staff writer. Contact her at rachel.abramowitz

'Shoot, I've got to get off the phone. They're picketing our set," said the producer as he slammed down the receiver.

Just another typical day in Hollywood, where BlackBerrys had stopped buzzing, agents had stopped twitching with testosterone-powered purposefulness, writers marched around with signs and popped Advil for their lower backs and executives aimlessly roamed the halls of Burbank hoping they wouldn't find pink slips in their mailboxes. And let's not forget the late-night hosts who grew funny beards and interviewed labor economists and each other rather than make small talk with Pamela Anderson or Brad Pitt. Another few weeks like this, and Jay and Conan could find themselves interviewing the inventor of antifungal foot cream.

Though it could well be settled by the time you read this, the Writers Guild strike and its repercussions have sent Hollywood into its version of a coma, a hazy dream-like state where the lucky complain about their TiVo options and face existential questions about how to organize their time now that work doesn't occupy 20 hours of their day, and the unlucky pull their kids out of private schools, watch their nest eggs dwindle and hope they won't lose their houses.

Obviously, no one's been partying. Not at studio-hosted Golden Globe bashes. Not privately. Even the movie premieres seem to have downscaled, as publicists sent word that appearing too festive is bad for a star's image. Gone are fancy lunches hosted by the machers with fat wallets--i.e., agents--as agencies such as United Talent Agency and International Creative Management slashed not only expense accounts but also salaries in an effort to avoid extensive layoffs.

"I'm coming into the office and surfing the Web and doing crossword puzzles and reading books," says Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Scott Frank. Pre-strike, he had his day packed to the nanosecond, writing his own scripts and doctoring others' scripts for films rushing toward production. Lately, he's been picketing and procrastinating. "Every time I sit down to write, I end up going online. It's pathetic. Everybody feels totally discombobulated. It's like the way people feel after a natural disaster. People have lost their routines around which they organize their lives."

Even hype, an entertainment industry staple, felt its days numbered. "The first people to be let go are publicists," says publicist Elizabeth Much. Much owns her own firm and remembers the writers strike of 1988. "I knew then there was no way I could have only actors as clients. I'm so grateful that my PR firm is not entirely reliant on the entertainment industry."

It used to be fun to mock the pretensions and glitz of awards season, but the loss of at least some red carpet festivities has turned out to be demoralizing for the town. Instead of glamming it up in designer-loaned gowns, Golden Globe winners got to hear about their victories in the most mundane circumstances--best director Julian Schnabel was standing in JFK airport, waiting for his luggage, when he heard his name on TV. Other winners--such as French actress Marion Cotillard--watched the televised news conference in their hotel rooms. And, of course, all of Hollywood has been fretting that the hallowed Oscars could become the strike's highest-profile casualty. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was forced to make preparations for two Oscar shows, one with writers and stars and one without. Perhaps that question will be settled by the time you read this, but anxiety over it has taken quite a toll.

And what about the careers that could go unwatered just as they had started to blossom? Will this year's new Oscar hopefuls, such as James McAvoy and Casey Affleck, see their breakouts eclipsed in the strike haze, like the athletes who were denied their shot at Olympic gold in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games?

"It's starting to hurt because we have Marion Cotillard for best actress," notes Bob Berney, chairman at Picturehouse, who's been pushing the French actress for her performance in "La Vie en Rose." "The strike is starting to hurt those people's careers. All the work they did--it's now not being honored. Not to mention the work they're not doing" because of the strike.

Fame and talent can be fleeting. (Seen Louise Fletcher recently? Hmmm, didn't think so. And she actually won the darn gold statue.) In this climate, it's clear why talent--writers, directors and stars--love residuals, those lovely paychecks that come from the studios for reusing initial work, as when TV shows are broadcast in Hong Kong or a feature film becomes a DVD. Residuals are part of the town's social compact, a security blanket for the inevitable day when wrinkles arrive, the zeitgeist changes or the magical mojo that stokes creativity disappears.

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