The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Is Hollywood quietly giving its stars the NBA and NFL lockout treatment?

July 8, 2011 | 12:36 pm

Lebron james Whether you're a movie star, a pro basketball player or an unsung schoolteacher, you know that we live in an era when labor unions are taking big hits. It's been a huge political issue in many states, as new laws have been passed that curb benefits and negotiating power for educators, firefighters and other public-sector employees.

But it's not just blue-collar, assembly-line types and government worker bees feeling the pain. Even though NBA and NFL players have far more clout than teachers or firefighters, their unions are facing rollbacks as well. Super-rich NFL owners have locked out their almost-as-ridiculously-well-compensated players. The NBA has just locked out its players as well, with its similarly wealthy owners claiming that despite $4 billion in league revenues, most teams are losing money.

As our NFL writer Sam Farmer put it: "This will not be a case of who wins -- the owners will wind up with the improved deal -- but by how much." Ditto for the NBA, which is demanding what our basketball writer Mark Heisler calls a "monster giveback" from its players.

But Hollywood -– which suffered through a nasty, tumultuous 100-day writers strike in late 2007 that shut down TV production and sparked an ugly war of words between screenwriters and their studio adversaries -– is enjoying what seems to be a remarkable labor peace right now. What gives?

The 2007 strike was so ugly that some industry chroniclers predicted another labor war would erupt when the writers and actors guild reps met with studios to negotiate new deals for contracts due to expire this summer. Yet the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, the other large actors union, reached a new three-year deal in November after barely a month of negotiations. The Writers Guild of America struck a new three-year deal this March after fewer than three weeks of talks. Both deals were approved even though the studios offered only the most modest of pay increases.

It's not as if these are flush times for rank-and-file writers and actors. As my colleague Richard Verrier reported this month, earnings for feature screenwriters in 2010 were down 10% from 2009 and 25% below the earnings for 2007. Writers are increasingly subject to a demeaning practice known as "sweepstakes pitching," in which as many as a dozen writers compete with one another, with producers cherry-picking the idea they find the most commercial.

On the surface, the sports and Hollywood labor disputes seem to have a lot in common. After all, if there were ever an entity whose rulers bore a strikingly close resemblance to the mandarins who run the entertainment business, it would be the NFL, a fabulously successful sports enterprise with the wealthiest owners, the smallest salaries and players with the shortest careers that has still decided it needs to squeeze a better deal from its on-the-field talent.

But the fact is, Hollywood execs have some advantages that the owners of the big pro sports teams don't.

Just a few short years ago, studios felt compelled to pay top dollar to stars who could open big summer movies. But nowadays, its almost impossible to find a major summer franchise film (excepting "Pirates of the Caribbean") anchored to a major star. "Thor's" Chris Hemsworth suddenly has a lot in common with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook -- they're both fresh-faced players that work for a relatively cheap price.

Judging from this summer's output of star-free studio movies, the major difference between the sports world and Hollywood is that showbiz moguls have actually found a way to promote their product without having to rely on the costliest element in the talent equation -- the star. "X-Men" and "Transformers" are saleable brands, even without a big name on the marquee. The studios are operating a lot like small-market sports teams like the Tampa Bay Rays -- they're building box-office behemoths using younger, comparatively underpaid talent.

"All these acrimonious labor disputes in sports derive from the owners believing that the players have gotten too big a piece of the pie," said veteran movie producer Joe Roth, who is the majority owner of the Seattle Sounders soccer club. "Hollywood is doing the same thing, but simply in a quieter way. They're using the reduction of DVD revenues as a legitimate, and often not so legitimate, excuse to cut back on talent expenses and downsize their labor force."

Writers Guild board member Howard Rodman, who penned the script for the film "Savage Grace" and is a candidate for the vice presidency in the union's upcoming election, agrees.

"It may not be as dramatic as what's happening in sports, but we're seeing a steady effort on the part of the studios to erode the status and union power of writers, actors and directors," he said. "In the feature-writing business, quotes don't mean anything anymore - -now the studios work backwards from what they're willing to pay for a job, and if you don't take the offer, they move on. The size of writing staffs are smaller. The studios are chipping away at everything involving talent."

It's actually been easier for Hollywood's media conglomerates to cut their talent costs than for their brethren in the pro basketball world, which is why NBA owners pushed for a lockout, even when the league was enjoying record TV ratings and vast fan appeal. The NBA's biggest concern involves something Hollywood doesn't have to brood about: achieving parity between franchises that are perpetual winners and franchises that are perennial also-rans.

"NBA players simply control their destiny far more than management, which is why you see LeBron James going to Miami," said director-producer Mike Tollin, who has made a wide variety of sports-themed movies, TV shows and documentaries, directing the film "Radio" and the award-winning documentary "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream."

"For the NBA, increased revenue sharing is a way to allow teams to compete on a level playing field, so a Sacramento Kings fan can have some of the same sense of hope and possibility going into a new season as a Lakers fan. You don't have the same kind of partisan fandom in Hollywood. Nobody roots for Paramount or Warners," Tollin said. "But everyone has labor costs and in the NBA, you have 30 individual owners who aren't part of a multinational media company, so they simply don't have as many ways as Hollywood does to amortize their expenses.”

But just ask any Cleveland Cavaliers fan: In the NBA, it's a steep drop off from LeBron James to Anderson Varejao. That's why, in the long run, athletes will end up being more successful at protecting their interests than movie stars and screenwriters. Some talent is more expendable than others.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Miami Heat forward LeBron James expresses dismay during game 2 of the NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena in Miami. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA

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