At film fest, labor 'frenzy'

Between bows in Toronto, actors and directors discuss the possibility of a strike.

September 24, 2000|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,Special to the Sun

TORONTO -- A strike could cripple Hollywood next summer, but the tension was already simmering at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

"I think there's a feeling in the air, a bit of a frenzy," actor Joaquin Phoenix said.

Threatened strikes by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), after its contract expires on May 2, and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) when its contract expires on June 30, could shut down production of movies and television shows indefinitely, costing the entertainment industry billions of dollars.

The issues involve divvying up cable, Internet and overseas profits. Nobody has been at the bargaining table yet, but some talk as if a walkout were a sure thing.

"There's a great rush in Hollywood now to get movies done before the strike," director Joel Schumacher said. "I think a lot of bad movies are going to get made because a lot of the scripts I've been reading aren't ready to go."

Schumacher was in Toronto and then New York to promote his new movie "Tigerland," a small drama about boot camp during the Vietnam War opening Oct. 6. His docket is now empty. Schumacher, best known for the third and fourth installments of "Batman," was looking for a lead actor to replace dropout Jim Carrey in an upcoming thriller called "Phone Booth" and was considering other projects.

"Insanity is contagious," Schumacher said. "I don't want to just grab a job because there will be a strike."

Whenever the actors' union would send Cuba Gooding Jr. information, he said he would never read it. The Academy Award winner for best supporting actor in "Jerry Maguire" said he told SAG he would use his clout when the right moment came along.

Amid the glitz in Toronto, Gooding conceded the moment has arrived. The SAG and the American Federation of Television-Radio Artists (AFTRA) already are embroiled in a 21-week commercial strike against advertisers over residuals. Few big names have demonstrated publicly for actors in commercials, but Gooding was ready.

"I was going to picket before I started 'Rat Race,' " he said, referring to a new movie he was about to shoot. "I feel very connected with the actors' strike. We're all in the same union."

Gooding visited Toronto to discuss his new movie, "Men of Honor," in which he plays the Navy's first black rescue diver. It was a rare opportunity to portray a positive black role model who did not emerge from the ghetto, Gooding said.

He has criticized the industry for under-paying and under-representing black actors, but said that curing racial inequities could wait while the union, networks and studios hammer out across-the-board financial matters.

A report earlier this month in Entertainment Weekly predicted a work stoppage between four and 16 months, costing the industry $636 million a month in lost wages. Audiences would feel the effect first on television next fall. Reruns and an already-growing number of reality-based shows such as "Survivor" would likely replace fresh episodes of dramas and sitcoms. Moviegoers would notice the difference much later because films require a longer lead time and have been stockpiled.

But the ripple effect has begun for the principals. Actors are scurrying to hitch up to projects that will be completed before the June 30 deadline -- and abandoning those that might not.

Mark Wahlberg partied here to toast the North American premiere of the subway-corruption drama he stars in with Phoenix, "The Yards." Around the same time, a report surfaced that Wahlberg had left the cast of "Ocean's Eleven" to keep his commitment to the accelerated production of the "Planet of the Apes" remake.

Phoenix said he and Wahlberg have a backup plan in case of a shutdown: they are going to form a band, make an album and tour. Wahlberg was once a rapper who called himself Marky Mark, and Phoenix insisted he had musical experience.

As for his thoughts on the issues, Phoenix replied, "I don't know."

Jeff Bridges, whose late father Lloyd was once president of the actors union, expressed concern about more productions moving north of the border.

"Here we are in Canada where they're making all the movies," said Bridges, who stars as the president in "The Contender," which premiered in Toronto and opens in wide release on Oct. 13. "I think it's really a shame that we're making it harder for companies to make movies in America."

While the industry showcased more of its fall offerings at the New York Film Festival this week, SAG President William Daniels (who played Dr. Mark Craig in "St. Elsewhere") was trying to help jumpstart negotiations in the commercial strike. Approached on a Manhattan street about the progress of the talks, Daniels adhered to a gag-order and said, "Not now."

Sally Field, who won a best-actress Oscar for playing the union galvanizer "Norma Rae" in 1980, came to Toronto to unveil her big-screen directorial debut of the beauty-pageant comedy "Beautiful."

Field said she is reshaping her career behind the camera, but the strike could sidetrack her.

"I'm totally backing the actors," she said. "I think it's time management spread the wealth."

Field's 8-year-old "Beautiful" star, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, is already losing a hefty allowance. Eisenberg is better known as the curly-haired cutie with Joe Pesci's dubbed voice in the Pepsi ads.

Asked if she planned to make more commercials, she answered, "I'm on strike!"

Come June, that could be the rallying cry for all of Hollywood.

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