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Hollywood trumpets its best, now silenced by a bitter strike

January 23, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Reactions to Academy Award nominations announced Tuesday became an intricate mix of hope and despair, as the usual feelings of joyful gratitude clashed with continuing fears about the nearly 3-month-old writers strike that has shaken Hollywood to its core.

The motion picture industry's big-tent get-together has devolved into a referendum on its immediate future: Will the town continue to be polarized by the labor dispute, or will the parties mend fences in time to celebrate the best and brightest?

"There's some kind of a dark side to the entire award season," said Diablo Cody, the first-time screenwriter of "Juno," which collected nominations for best picture, director (Jason Reitman), lead actress (Ellen Page) and original screenplay. "But I'm supportive of the strike, and I guess at this point all I can say is, 'We'll see what happens.' "

The nominations for the 80th annual awards were revealed the day that informal conversations between the Writers Guild of America and TV and film producers resumed after contract negotiations collapsed in early December.

The timing of the new talks was fitting given this year's nominations: More than in recent years, the Oscar selections honored singular visions from the writer-directors whose creative voices have been silenced by the strike -- Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton"), Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men"), Brad Bird ("Ratatouille") and Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood") among them.

"What happens to me getting an award is trivial," said Gilroy, whose "Michael Clayton" collected seven nominations, including best picture, director and original screenplay. "What's really important is so many people are out of work and so many people have just been really ravaged by this strike. Whether I get to put on a tuxedo or not is really trivial compared to the much larger issue of getting people back to work and getting a fair deal."

Many of the nominees seemed eager to reach that deal sooner rather than later, and some were encouraged by the recent tentative agreement between the Directors Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. However, they were willing to sacrifice their time in the spotlight for the greater good of their guild.

That's what is keeping the Oscar organizers up at night.

"Can you imagine the e-mails and phone calls going on now?" said Ronald Harwood, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." "Behind the scenes, it must be frantic. Something will give."

On Jan. 13, the WGA strike transformed the Golden Globe Awards into a surreal, mostly unwatched news conference that cost NBC millions of dollars in advertising revenue. The WGA has said it will not grant any waivers to the producers of the Oscar ceremony, which would prevent the show from hiring any writers.

If the strike is not settled before the scheduled Feb. 24 Ostelecast, a televised ceremony probably would be picketed by the WGA and, in solidarity, by the Screen Actors Guild, which not only would keep nominees away but would mean even greater shortfalls for ABC than NBC faced from the Golden Globes. Last year, the telecast drew an average 40.2 million viewers, with advertisers paying nearly $1.7 million for each 30-second spot.

Executives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have said that they are confident their Oscar ceremony will go on as planned.

"I can't believe Hollywood would allow the same thing for Oscars," said Tim Bevan, a producer of best picture nominee "Atonement." "There's a bit of incredulity and anger that the Globes didn't happen."

Despite Oscar producer Gilbert Cates' and ABC's intention to move forward with the telecast, there is plenty of speculation as to how a writer-free (and therefore star-free) ceremony might play out.

Cates has said there are enough clips in the 80 years of Oscar history to make for an entertaining program, but it's unclear how the show could offer the glitz and glamour of Oscars past. And it's doubtful that scheduled host Jon Stewart -- a member of both the WGA and SAG -- would cross a picket line to emcee.

Still, many nominees hoped financial divisions between the writers and the producers could be bridged.

"The thing I don't understand is, we're all in this business together, producing, entertaining, actors, writers, cameramen, set dressers, editors, crew -- you name it," said Hal Holbrook, nominated for supporting actor for "Into the Wild." "It takes all of us together to create the product being sold. What I don't understand is, why should there be a reluctance to share the wealth?"

Others wanted to remind the industry that the very issue at the center of the strike -- the screenwriter's intrinsic value -- is inseparably linked to the quality of the nominated films.

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