Ask anyone in the business of playing host to the once-steady stream of American film and TV productions here, and they'll tell you that things aren't what they were.
The dollar's steady climb, provinces, states and countries around the globe chasing U.S. production dollars with increasingly aggressive incentive programs, and the city's now-glaring lack of purpose-built sound stages (the kind big-budget blockbusters demand) have withered the local production industry to a shell of its once-robust self.
Wait. It gets worse.en Ferguson, the head of Toronto Film Studios, went to Los Angeles last week. Meeting with various studio heads, Ferguson looked for a take on the looming threat of a writers' strike, which could bring production everywhere the U.S.-based industry touches to a standstill.
"It was a little disturbing to see the blank looks staring back," Ferguson recalled recently.
For a clarifying view, his timing was less than perfect: Last week, the Writers Guild of America amped up the rhetoric in its months-long contract dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents all major studios and television networks.
Earlier this month, the union voted, more than 90 per cent, in favour of a strike after their current agreement expires Oct. 31, though most took it as posturing. With the Screen Actors Guild's and Directors Guild's contracts expiring in June, it was reasonable to think the Writers Guild would delay their own strike until then.
Last week, they said, not so. Hence the blank stares.
"I think it really took them by surprise," Ferguson said.
Short term, this is not good.
"The phones have gone quiet here," Ferguson said. "When we call to ask, they say they have to wait and see."
Long term? For you, the viewer, small scale disaster: The very real possibility of having to wait – again – to see how Lost ends.
For the industry? Potentially much worse. In the public profile-driven world of Hollywood, writers dwell in shadows while actors, directors and even producers absorb the klieg light glare. Without them, though, the lights go dark. No script, no shooting. And that's precisely what Hollywood could be facing next Thursday.
Not that they haven't been preparing for it. "What everyone has to understand here is that the studios were preparing for this at the beginning of the year, if not sooner," says Ken Dhaliwal, an entertainment lawyer at Heenan-Blaikie, a Toronto-based firm. Dhaliwal represents several major American studios as clients.
The preparation has been an artificial production boost as studios rush to complete projects before the strike occurs, stockpiling TV episodes and movies in case of an impasse.
The Ontario Media Development Corporation, which tracks production in the city and province, confirms high activity.
"We're definitely busy," said George McNeillie, the OMDC's manager of communications, though it was his sense it was not much more so than the previous year.
International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents some 1,500 support workers in the film industry, is overloaded with work, according to David Baer, the president of the agency's theatrical arm. "They're going completely nuts, working full out – at least for now," he says.
But it's artificial, Dhaliwal says.
"There's been a late-year surge," he says. "We're probably in a bit of a bubble – things being forced into production.
"But it's a short-term boost and then, if it happens – a dead zone."
Which, of course, is what nobody wants – actors, writers and studios alike. So why can't they all just get along? Some argue being at odds is a natural state for writers and studios ("It's in our DNA" said one writer who asked not to be named).
In the end, it comes down to the baseline Hollywood ethic: Money.
During the last Hollywood writers' strike in 1988, a five-month impasse over residuals – payment for shows and films that aired in perpetuity – nobody won. Writers were out of work for half a year; production support workers – caterers, gaffers, crew – were, too; networks had to push their fall schedules back to mid-winter; viewership dropped by 10 per cent. Enter a fragmented media universe of cable TV; some say it never recovered.
This time around, it's the same song with a different tune. Writers (and actors, hence their pending strike) say studios have cut them out of revenues from various new kinds of distribution – DVDs, and, specifically, online distribution. They want, they say, their fair share.
The problem: No-one knows what "fair" is. With online distribution in particular yet to become a profit centre, the two sides are haggling over potential profit, not profit itself. The web, studios say, is a promotional tool that costs money, not makes it. But that won't be the case forever, the writers say.
"Writers and actors see their work online every day – why not get paid for it?" Dhaliwal says. "That's the problem – no one has ever come up with a business strategy for new media, and no one wants to give up the piece that could, in the end, be the big winner."
In Canada earlier this year, ACTRA, the union that represents Canadian actors, went on strike for four months over the multimedia issue. They ratified a new contract in April that, for the first time, included benefits for new media.
It remains the only one of its kind, and now written into the contract of a major entertainment industry union, the precedent for new media benefits is set. The question is no longer whether or not to include it, but how?
"There's been a lot of hype" about the multimedia issue, says Maureen Parker, executive director of the Writers Guild of Canada, which has close ties with its American counterpart. "But it's not the only issue," she says, citing the row over DVD residuals, which the writers claim to be laughably low.
Parker will be in Los Angeles next week observing as negotiations go into the 11th hour (the unions are affiliated, but not joined; Canadian guild members will still be able to work on Canadian shows during an American Guild strike, but U.S.-based writers will be encouraged not to cross the border).
She describes the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers's offerings – they withdrew their demand to rollback residuals, framing it as a significant concession – as "not really very serious negotiations for a multi-billion dollar industry."
(For their part, the Alliance suggests that Guild demands would be financially crippling for them. The Guild "continue(s) to pursue numerous financial proposals that would result in astronomical increases in our costs," said Alliance president Nick Counter in a statement this week).
Earlier this week, six days of negotiation produced no results, prompting Counter to urge onlookers to not "confuse process with progress." But Parker has heard the tough talk before.
"I can't remember a single negotiation when the studios didn't talk tough," she said. "We've seen this all before. It's not time to panic yet."