Hollywood races to beat unions' pact deadlines

The Baltimore Sun

Justice League of America is exactly the kind of movie Warner Bros. loves to make. Based on the classic DC Comics series, the script is filled with a dream team of recognizable superheroes - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash - and could not only become its own franchise, but also could spin off individual character sequels, TV shows and merchandise. (Green Lantern Underoos, anyone?)

But even a league of superheroes might not have enough special powers to repel the latest villain on Hollywood's horizon: an impending labor dispute.

JLA is but one of many projects caught in an industrywide scramble to assemble films that can be completed before a potential talent strike shuts down film production next summer, according to interviews with two dozen studio executives, agents, producers and screenwriters. Studio executives and producers are accelerating screenplay revisions, and A-list directors are postponing editing so they can compile footage on back-to-back movies should actors swap punch lines for picket lines.

The studios are mindful of the mistakes they made in 2001's similarly prolonged contract skirmish, when frenzied decision-making led to miscasting, half-baked screenplays and poorly matched filmmakers. Though a strike never happened, the resulting overabundance of undercooked cinema (The Truth About Charlie, Reign of Fire, Dark Blue) left everyone with a hangover.

The studios' contracts with the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America expire June 30. Their deal with the Writers Guild of America,.West runs out this October, but the WGA is expected to work without a new pact temporarily, hoping the delay will give it more bargaining strength as the DGA and SAG contracts also expire. While the unions have separate demands, they are united in their quest for revenues from new media such as video on demand, Web downloads and cell-phone content.

To beat the strike deadlines, the studios must start filming by March 1. While some high-profile projects are coming together quickly, other prominent movies - Will Ferrell's Land of the Lost, Matt Damon's The Fighter, Eddie Murphy's Fantasy Island - must clear logistical, financial and political hurdles to move forward.

"The next four weeks are really critical," says Paramount production chief Brad Weston. "Movies are coming together and falling apart by the day."

JLA is a perfect example. With concurrent individual comic book franchises already running - a Batman sequel is in production and a Superman Returns sequel is possible - there's the danger of confusing fans with simultaneous versions of the same characters. Furthermore, the current Batman, Christian Bale, is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after actors and apparently has little interest in an additional trip to the Bat Cave.

JLA also could create something of a superhero glut since Warner Bros. greenlighted Watchmen, another DC Comics adaptation that just started preproduction with 300 director Zack Snyder. Worried that JLA might undercut his Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, director Chris Nolan isn't thrilled with the current JLA plans, according to people familiar with his thinking. A spokeswoman for the director said, "Chris Nolan is knee-deep in production on The Dark Knight [and] has not commented on a potential JLA movie or any other project."

Regardless, Warner Bros., which declined to comment, needs to hire a JLA director immediately to guide any further rewrites and attract actors. As it is, numerous directors have been passing on the project, although Happy Feet's George Miller may end up in the chair. Like any last-minute rescue, time is of the essence.

Jay A. Fernandez and John Horn write for the Los Angeles Times.

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