July 4, 2008

Strike Threat Fails to Deter Film Crew ‘Terminator’ Sequel Tests Actors’ Union

By Michael Cieply

The scorched earth and post-apocalyptic wreckage on a hillside just south of here carry a message for those who think the film industry has been closed down by the stalled negotiations between actors and producers: Hollywood will not give up next year's pictures without a fight.

For all the talk of a de facto strike - a shutdown caused by studio reluctance to schedule production beyond the expiration at midnight this past Monday of a contract with the Screen Actors Guild - a number of high-profile projects are simply pushing ahead.

None have done so more boldly than "Terminator Salvation." This huge production has tantalized Albuquerque with glimpses of weird military hardware, a blast site marked by the shards of a 7-Eleven sign, and a lot full of battered helicopters, even while establishing this desert city as a manufacturing center for big- budget films.

As of Tuesday, actors' guild leaders were reviewing a contract proposal that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents production companies, says is its "final" offer. The producers and guild leaders were scheduled to go over the proposal details at a meeting Wednesday.

The guild has taken no strike vote. It was widely expected to delay that step until it learned the outcome of a vote by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, another actors' union with overlapping membership, on a tentative agreement with terms that guild leaders have called inadequate. The vote results are expected to be released next week.

Set for release by Warner Brothers at the end of next May, the fourth installment in the "Terminator" series, this one directed by McG - as Joseph McGinty Nichol is better known - began shooting in May. Principal photography is not set to wrap until well into August.

The movie's cast, including the lead, Christian Bale - Arnold Schwarzenegger is not starring - would be pulled off the set if actors chose to strike. That would leave its independent producers - including Halcyon and Intermedia Films - with half a movie and a tangled mess of equipment, sound stages, locations and crew members on hold.

Yet "Terminator Salvation," like the "Da Vinci Code" sequel "Angels & Demons" from Sony Pictures and "Transformers 2" from Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks, has moved forward, largely because the film industry's needs have overwhelmed any conviction that actors will actually walk out.

"Around April or May, they just started making plans," Lisa Strout, director of the New Mexico Film Office, said this week during an interview at her Santa Fe headquarters. She was referring to a shift by studios, which earlier had promised to shut down rather than get into a game of chicken with the actors. "We're expecting a very strong summer and fall," Strout added.

Producers of "Terminator Salvation" referred calls to Warner representatives, who did not respond to queries.

A 100-day strike by the Writers Guild of America East and the Writers Guild of America West left studios scrambling earlier this year to patch holes in their movie schedules for 2009 and beyond.

Warner came up short at least one potential blockbuster when troubles with the script and other matters delayed "Justice League of America," a superhero film that was racing toward production when the writers struck last November.

That the "Terminator" sequel should be pushed into the breach - whether the guild had a contract this summer or not - owed much to a five-year campaign by Governor Bill Richardson to build New Mexico's film industry with unusually aggressive incentives.

His program offers a 25 percent rebate on virtually all film production expenditures in the state, without a cap. Thus the makers of "Terminator Salvation," with a budget reported at more than $200 million, are expected to recoup tens of millions of dollars from a state government eager to showcase the production, the largest in New Mexico so far.

Recently, Lionsgate and the director Frank Miller shot "Will Eisner's The Spirit" in Albuquerque. "No Country for Old Men," which won the best picture Oscar last year, was filmed near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and elsewhere in the state. Those and other projects have brought about $1.8 billion in entertainment-related spending to New Mexico in the past five years, according to Eric Witt, director of the governor's entertainment development effort.

Though relatively small, with a population of about two million, New Mexico has managed to keep its budget on an even keel, thanks in part to income related to oil, gas and coal that has grown as energy prices have risen.

Not incidentally, the state is expected to pick up part of the insurance costs of "Terminator Salvation." Joe Finnegan, a vice president for entertainment insurance with Fireman's Fund, and Steve Mangel, president of International Film Guarantors, a sister unit, declined to discuss their companies' involvement with "Terminator Salvation."

But both said that industry practice was to charge higher premiums in the face of a potential strike that could leave expensive equipment sitting idle, or expose a star like Bale to possible hazards during an enforced hiatus. "That's called underwriting," Finnegan said.

"Terminator Salvation" has also been helped along by good will from Albuquerque Studios, a new production complex whose owners wooed the film away from Hungarian rivals shortly before a planned start in Budapest. Financed partly by union-backed entities in Chicago and Washington, the studio complex has promised to bend over backward to help should the film shut down - even if that means refusing to book small productions with SAG waivers while waiting for the labor troubles to end.

"Their walking away without a picture does me no good," said Nick Smerigan, chief operating officer of Albuquerque Studios.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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