Writers trade pickets for keyboards

February 13, 2008 9:26:33 PM PST
Writers have a reputation as master procrastinators, yet they eagerly faced the blank page Wednesday as Hollywood sputtered back to life after a punishing 100-day strike.

One day after the Writers Guild of America voted to end the walkout, writers on idled TV shows were back at the studios, reviewing projects with executives or pestering their agents to set up meetings. Agents were pitching, producers were assessing how to resume interrupted projects, and the little guys who keep the dream-factory engines running were just glad to be back at work.

"It's back to school with all the trepidation of, `Do you remember how to do your job? And did you forget the characters' name?"' said Eddie Gorodetski, a writer for "Two and a Half Men." "I want to forget all the strike stuff and just make people laugh."

"We, like every other writer in town, have a million calls in to our agents and managers to see what's next," said Brian Sawyer, who with partner Gregg Rossen had sold a sitcom pilot to Fox before the strike began Nov. 5.

Amid the relief, however, was caution: The Screen Actors Guild could go on strike after its contract expires June 30.

"Heralding that the strike is over is a half-truth because we have the Screen Actors Guild," said producer Peter Guber, former head of Columbia Pictures, current chairman of the Mandalay Entertainment Group and co-host of AMC's "Shootout." "The studios, unless they're going to start production in the next 10 days so they can finish it before June, aren't going to start the pictures."

The strike reduced prime-time TV to reruns and reality shows and forced the late-night comics to write their own material. For shows that went into reruns, producers and writers began meeting to figure out how much of the season they could salvage and how they would meet tight deadlines to write and shoot new episodes.

Dates were announced Wednesday for some series to return to the air. Among them were "How I Met Your Mother," "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" on March 17; and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" on April 3.

Rainn Wilson, a Writers Guild member and co-star of "The Office," said he was hearing that everyone on the show will report back on March 10 to shoot six more episodes.

Early on, the strike was a hiatus from the daily grind for some. By Tuesday night's overwhelming vote to end the walkout, it was clear they were eager to get back to work.

"The break has been long enough," Wilson said. "Everyone slyly around December was like, `Actually, this is kind of cool.' Then it was January, February, you know, so we're ready to get back."

Writers for "CSI: NY" were back in their CBS conference room in Studio City, tossing around ideas for two episodes they need to write from scratch in the next two weeks, about half the time they normally would need.

"There's a fire, and it's clearly arson," said executive producer Pam Veasey, outlining a story premise.

Under such a tight deadline, the writing crew had little time to readjust to work after so much time off.

"It was like we were all sent to a really weird summer camp for three months, but now we're able to come home," said "CSI: NY" writer Samantha Humphrey. Added colleague Peter Lenkov: "We want to deliver something good to thank the audience for sticking with us."

Writers returned after guild leaders and producers came to terms on a key sticking point - compensation for shows and movies distributed over the Internet. Guild members are expected to ratify the contract in voting over the next 10 days.

Along with the 10,500 writers who walked out, the strike immobilized thousands of technicians, makeup people and other production workers. The Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. estimates the strike cost the local economy $3.2 billion in lost wages and revenue.

"Hollywood labor problems can cripple this town. Everything depends on making films here," said Charles Griffin, an NBC sound technician out of work since December.

With a much longer lead time, big-screen movie production generally carried on as usual during the walkout. Knowing writers were likely to strike, studio executives stockpiled scripts they felt were polished enough to put before the cameras without screenwriters there to make on-the-spot touchups.

That could raise some quality issues down the road for films hitting theaters this fall and into 2009 - or it might result in some improvisational gems from actors ad-libbing when a scene was not working. Unable to do rewrites themselves or even coach actors on dialogue changes, directors had to adhere to scripts or let performers wing it.

Mousa Kraish, who has written four screenplays and directed two independent films but is not a guild member, worked as an actor on Adam Sandler's upcoming comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" and said the production stuck to the screenplay word for word.

"It was difficult," he said. "We couldn't even improv."

A few high-profile movies such as Ron Howard and Tom Hanks' "Angels & Demons," a follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code," were put on hold during the strike to await script revisions. That work now can resume, and development executives can move ahead with writers on scripts new and old.

"There will be a flurry of activity. Whether it results in a flurry of deals is something else," said Larry Turman, a former producer whose credits include "The Graduate" and "American History X" and who now heads the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"Agents, writers and studios are chomping at the bit. It's no different than if you fast all day today, the next morning you'll be hungry. Everybody's hungry, but it doesn't mean everyone's going to get fed."

Agent Toochis Morin, a partner in the Brant Rose Agency, said studios will have huge backlogs of "spec scripts" - finished screenplays writers shop around on the open market - to choose from.

"In a way, it really benefits the studios. They'll be able to sit back and have the pick of what they want," Morin said.

How long it takes before it's business as usual in Hollywood is anyone's guess. But screenwriter John Ridley, whose credits include "Undercover Brother," expects one constant to quickly resurface: That talent writers have for putting off work.

"Writers, and I include myself, are the whiniest bunch of people on the planet," Ridley said. "I'm sure the first day back, somebody's already saying, `Where's lunch? Did anybody order lunch?' And the producers are saying, `Oh, they're whining about lunch again. We're back. It's really over."' ---
Associated Press Writers David Bauder and Jake Coyle in New York and Sandy Cohen, Raquel Maria Dillon, Lynn Elber, Christy Lemire and Solvej Schou in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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