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Hollywood starts '09 with little to celebrate

The economic downturn hit while audiences were already turning to the Web. Experts expect more layoffs for the local industry.

January 02, 2009|Claudia Eller and Richard Verrier

There is no Hollywood ending in sight in 2009 for the entertainment industry, which along with the rest of the nation is experiencing its worst economic slump in decades.

The fallout from declining local TV ad revenue, weakening DVD sales and diminishing sources of film financing will continue to pound Los Angeles' signature industry, which employs more than 200,000 people and pumps an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion into the local economy.

Many expect that will trigger further layoffs at the studios, networks, independent production outfits and other media companies on top of the thousands of job losses that have already occurred in recent months. Industry executives contend that the steep downturn will force Hollywood to fundamentally change the way it does business.

"You can eliminate all the limos and velvet rope events you want," said former studio executive Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center and research professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "But if you're still spending $100 million on pictures that have little chance of being hits, you're in a business that is inherently nuts."

Compounding the angst is the threat of another industry strike, this time by the powerful Screen Actors Guild, which would halt most movie and prime-time TV production and throw tens of thousands of actors, technicians and others out of work. Estimates of how much last year's strike by screenwriters cost the local economy vary widely, from $380 million to $2.5 billion. One study concluded the strike led to the state losing 37,700 jobs tied to the entertainment industry.

"It's not business as usual," said Marc Shmuger, the chairman of Universal Pictures. "We are all facing economic uncertainty, and [2009] is going to be tough. We are deep into a recession. None of us have been here before."

The signs of distress are already evident. In December, Universal laid off 70 executives as part of parent company NBC Universal's move to cut 500 jobs across its business units. The same day, Viacom Inc. shed 850 jobs at its various media companies, including MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures.

Most recently, video game giant Electronic Arts Inc., based in Redwood City, Calif., said it was cutting 1,000 jobs amid declining sales, and New York-based Cablevision Systems Corp. announced it would close its Voom high-definition channels and cut jobs in the unit. Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC are considering similar moves in the first quarter.

Studios are also scaling back the number of movies they are making.

Indeed, the capital crunch will help ensure it. Paramount and MGM weren't able to close "slate" film financing deals in 2008, and prospects for securing such arrangements in the near term appear bleak. Even one of the world's most famous filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, is struggling to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in debt financing to help bankroll his new studio.

Although most studios have long-term financing deals in place, their lenders are looking to renegotiate terms, including lower distribution fees that studios earn for releasing the movies. The studios may have to resort more to self-financing their productions.

That would force them to take on greater risk and make fewer films, says Richard Dorfman, managing director for the New York investment firm Richard Alan Inc. "The credit crunch will have a pervasive effect on the movie business in 2009 and 2010," Dorfman said.

Some studios say they are hoping to save money without having to sacrifice jobs.

"We have been implementing aggressive cost-containment initiatives specifically designed to mitigate layoffs," said Julie Henderson, a spokeswoman for News Corp., parent of 20th Century Fox. Fox expects to save $400 million this fiscal year by reducing marketing and production costs, slashing travel and entertainment budgets and not filling open positions, the studio official said.

Similar moves are underway at Culver City-based Sony Pictures. "We're cutting costs across the board, with restrictions on overtime, the filling of open positions and those that become vacant, use of temporary workers, and travel and entertainment expenses, as well as consolidating shared services," Sony spokesman Jim Kennedy said.

Executives there have been told to cut travel costs, stay at cheaper hotels and use a shuttle van instead of car service between the studio and LAX. Other studios say they too are cutting back on traditional Hollywood perks such as lavish premieres, first-class and "entourage" travel, limo services and hair and makeup sessions. Expect to see fewer executives at upcoming festivals in Cannes in the South of France and at Sundance in Park City, Utah, as well as industry events.

For the first time, Universal won't send executives to the movie theater industry's biggest trade show, ShoWest, scheduled for March in Las Vegas. Sony canceled executive meetings in Latin America in December and Europe in June.

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