Could striking writers really shut down Hollywood's biggest party?
The producer of the Academy Awards promised Tuesday that the show would go on, although some Oscar watchers said the result could be a disastrous telecast with celebrities forced to stumble through ad-libbed presentations of awards.
"Awards shows are the best chance that writers have to prove how valuable they are. Without a script, we may finally find out how vapid and empty these stars really are," said Tom O'Neil, columnist for the entertainment-awards Web site TheEnvelope.com. "The awards shows will have no choice but to go on with the show, but not the telecast."
"That's totally ridiculous," responded Gil Cates, producer of the Oscar broadcast scheduled to air Feb. 24 on ABC. "There will absolutely be a (televised) show one way or another. There are awards to give out."
The Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike for seven weeks, vowed Monday that it would not allow members to write for the Academy Awards show or next month's Golden Globes, a warmup to the Oscars.
With the Screen Actors Guild preparing for its own negotiations with producers next year and stars showing firm support for striking writers, the bigger question may be whether presenters or even nominees would show up for an awards show boycotted by writers.
"I hope the actors feel strongly enough in support for us that they would not break picket lines," said Brett Baer, a writer for the Golden Globe-nominated show "30 Rock." He said the union told him he was not allowed to come to the Globes ceremony.
"If we could shut down the awards shows, that would be great. Actors should definitely not cross picket lines," guild member Steven Paul Leiva said Tuesday at a protest outside the producers alliance offices.
"It's unfortunate, because it's a celebration of people's talent, but it's also promotional for the studios that are treating us unfairly," said Leiva, whose credits include the holiday flick "The 12 Dogs of Christmas" and animation on the movie "Space Jam."
Producers fired back in a statement that the guild was hurting the "creative artists who deserve to be honored for their work over the last year."
"In the category of Worst Supporting Union, the nominee is the WGA," the statement said.
The actors guild said it would decide on its position about awards shows after reaching out to its elected leadership and members who have been nominated for Golden Globes. For its own awards Jan. 27, five days after Oscar nominations come out, the actors guild has reached an interim agreement for a Writers Guild member to script the ceremony.
Writers Guild members walked off the job over their cut of potential revenues from programming on the Internet and other new means of distribution. Talks between the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers broke down Dec. 7, and rhetoric between writers and their employers has grown nasty even for a town known for backbiting.
On Monday, the guild released a letter rejecting a request from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which presents the Golden Globes, for a waiver to allow striking writers to work on the show. In a separate letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the guild denied a waiver Oscar organizers had sought for use of movie clips and past awards shows during the ceremony, which would allow the academy to use such footage without paying residual fees to writers.
The academy had not yet asked the guild for a waiver on the actual writing of the Oscar show. But the guild's board of directors has decided not to give the academy an interim agreement for writing services, a person close to the guild said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to comment.
Critic Richard Roeper of television's "Ebert and Roeper" agreed that if the strike lingers, the awards shows could end up going back to private functions such as in pre-TV days or present their prizes in some wildly new fashion.
"As much as I want to see the strike end, I wouldn't mind seeing awards shows do something different, because they're usually so horrible," Roeper said. "Maybe Tom Hanks should just open up his home and just have the Oscars on a table."
Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin said the Oscars and Globes are dependent on the money the broadcasts bring in, so they will have to televise their shows, even if it means unscripted ceremonies.
"It's not possible for either organization, because this is the source of their yearly income. This is their main revenue stream," Maltin said. "They can't afford to scrap the telecast."
Lowering the boom on the Oscars and other awards shows may be the wisest strategy writers could follow.
"It's the same reason that you see retail and hotel unions staging job actions during the holiday season," said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley. "The point of a well-timed action is it has a greater chance of creating the kind of leverage to get talks going."
Mike Asensio, a partner at the national law firm of Baker Hostetler and a specialist in labor law, called the awards shows "a golden opportunity" for the guild, but "whether it works or not remains to be seen. It's a great weapon to have but it's an easy one to misplay and aggravate the public."
The Oscars have been postponed for several days three times in their 79 years because of severe flooding in Los Angeles in 1938, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Yet the show has eventually always gone on. Even in 2003, as the U.S.-led war on Iraq began, the Oscars were presented as scheduled, when some "folks thought that was not a good thing to do," Oscar producer Cates said.
Writing on the Oscar show would not even begin until after the nominations, and with the ceremony more than two months off, there's plenty of time for writers and producers to come to terms, Cates said.
"It's five, six weeks away," Cates said. "We've got to get through the Iowa caucuses first."