The Nuclear Option

December 06, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

If the WGA strike was just about money, it would be over by now. In fact, money is only part of the equation. The other, more significant variable is power. The sides don't just want to settle; they want to win. They'll deny this, of course, but that's what it comes down to in almost any high-priced labor negotiation. That's why there was no World Series in 1994. That's why the 2007-08 TV show has shut down before 2008 begins.

As yet, the WGA strike hasn't severely impacted movies, and it won't for another few months. But let's consider the so-called "nuclear option." What if neither side gives in and this thing stretches on and on and on. What would the ultimate long-term implications be at the box office? No one knows for sure, but it's fascinating to speculate. Hopefully, we'll never have to discover whether these long-term predictions have validity.

We'll start with time lines. Many insiders and experts believe that the date when the strike starts impacting the movie industry will be around March 1. The blockbusters for 2008 are all written; March is when the writers would be needed to finish the screenplays for the summer 2009 season. If the strike lasts beyond March 2008, the probability is that no new blockbusters would be produced for the May-July 2009 period. Push the strike out to November 2008 (unlikely, admittedly) and we could be looking at no new blockbusters for all of 2009.

While blockbusters tend to take about 14 months from script to final edit, less prestigious productions can be rushed through in about six months. So if the strike ends in the summer of 2008, we might have a lean summer of 2009 in terms of high profile blockbuster, but we would be awash in smaller productions. (This could be a good thing or bad thing; depends on the quality of the scripts.) But what if 2009 became a complete write-off, with the strike progressing pat the middle of that year. What then?

The first line of defense will be a postponement of some November/December 2008 blockbusters. If it becomes apparent that the summer 2009 isn't going to have any "tent-poles," the studios are going to take a few of their big-budget holiday 2008 releases and shift them to the summer of 2009. Two likely candidates are Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (currently expected at Thanksgiving 2008) and Star Trek (currently expected at Christmas 2008). One of these will end up around Memorial Day and the other around July 4. Give them virtually no competition and we could see some truly amazing box-office results. Want to beat Titanic? That might be the way.

But what about the rest of the schedule? Let's use The Water Horse as a template. This is an "American" movie because it was made almost entirely with American money. But it was filmed in New Zealand and used British actors. If the strike goes on for a long time, there are going to be a large number of international co-productions - movies written by British and Australian writers and filmed outside of the United States. If there's a SAG strike next summer, American actors will be replaced by British, Canadian, and Australians. Since these movies typically cost Hollywood a fraction of the money of a similar "home-grown" movie, numerous such productions can be funded.

There's also the possibility of bringing in strike-breakers, although it's unclear how the other unions would react to that. If a non-WGA member writes the next Superman movie, would a member of the DGA direct it? Would SAG members appear in it? Or would the production have to be taken out of the country?

The bottom line is that the movie industry will not collapse completely. Plenty of titles originally scheduled to go direct-to-DVD will get theatrical showings. Older movies will have special repeat screenings. But multiplexes will suffer because teenagers won't be turned on by the new breed of motion pictures. These are things that will attract older viewers, but they have largely been driven away by the poor level of service and general neglect evident in most multiplexes. Theaters will close and the business as a whole will suffer. DVD sales, already slumping, will go into a nosedive once the new product is less appealing.

No one knows when the WGA strike will end, and whether next year will add potentially back-breaking DGA and SAG strikes. If the issues are resolved by March, no harm/no foul as far as movies are concerned. By June, there will be implications to late 2008 (with blockbuster push-outs) and 2009. By September/October, 2009 will start looking very bad. By January 2009, we have arrived at the nuclear option, with the entire calendar year undergoing cinematic nuclear winter. The two sides couldn't possibly be stubborn enough to let it get to that, could they? I mean, isn't that as stupid as two incompatible formats for high def DVDs cutting the heart out of that market?

If I were to guess, I'd say the strike will end in the February-March 2008 time frame. But that's just a gut feeling, and I certainly wouldn't wager money on it. And maybe we really will get to see an unscripted Oscars show...