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This transcript has been typed at speed, and therefore may contain mistakes. Newsnight accepts no responsibility for these. However, we will be happy to correct serious errors.

Lights, camera, industrial action 26/3/01

Hollywood, the home of film noir. Today, the mood on the streets is blacker and meaner than ever.

It could get really ugly, there's a real divisiveness between the studios and the labourer. All of the elements are in place, on both sides, for us to have the show business equivalent of the perfect storm.

People are terrified of losing their homes and businesses, and how are we going to raise our kids? It is terrifying.

Everybody in America has two businesses, their own and show business. And when, you know, with the possibility of an actors and writers strike, that's affects people's daily lives, from watching on the TV set and watching.

The movie business here is, you could say, as old as the hills. What could happen here in three months' time will be as historic. People will stop making movies. That's if 135,000 actors carry out their threat to go on strike. Hollywood could start to fall apart. The stars mean business. Kevin Costner told Newsnight why. Do you support the strike?

I support the Screen Actors Guild, and all artists. It will affect projects if they strike. Some people get a vacation, I'm fortunate that it's not going to affect me too much. But there's other people who really depend on being able to work, and I empathise with them.

Last year, actors went on strike over payments for commercials, as Liz Hurley found out to her cost. Tim Robbins accepted her innocence, but still talked tough on the streets.

I will have a long memory for scab actors, as a producer and director. We must stay strong, united, show solidarity to this working class issue, this working class strike. This is a middle class issue, most actors don't make over $5,000 a year.

The new dispute is not just about ads, but about all film and TV. Actors are fighting over residuals, the payments they get from films being shown outside cinemas. There has been a huge growth in new outlets, home video spending in the States has risen by 50% in five years, and DVD sales have more than tripled in just two. Foreign markets and cable TV have grown too. The internet could become a whole new way to see movies. But actors' contracts haven't caught up with any of this. Bill Daniels runs the actors' union.

With places like China opening up, I get fan mail from the strangest places, that we never did before, that are watching American television, and the payments are for actors are not in line with the profits that the producers are getting out of these things.

To track down who might be lifted from economic gloom, we entered the twilight world of the resting actor. It said that's the lot of 70% of them in Hollywood at any one time, so more money from the films they do do, could make a big difference. Hyla Matthews works in the hottest restaurant in town. By night, she greets the likes of Tom Hanks and Madonna. In the day, she's done a commercial and acting classes. But making ends meet is tough. She sees the irony in big stars taking to the picket line.

It helps bring attention to the strike, but as far as them being affected, it's a joke. It's not their livelihood, and I think they should be doling out money to those they're on line with. I know they're trying to show their support, but it's pretty ironic.

American actors are proud of their history of taking on the movie studios. Some would say Ronald Reagan was at his most political as President of the actors' union in the '40s and '50s. The groundwork was laid by stars of an earlier generation. Bette Davis famously rebelled against the studio system, and in a landmark decision, Olivia de Haviland weakened their power to dictate which films you did. One of Hollywood's veterans has seen things evolve from the days of the moguls. The people holding the purse strings have changed, and getting what you want has become tougher.

In the old days, you sat down with Fox and Columbia, and the four big studios and sat down and negotiated a situation. Now it is hard to find all these people, because there's a lot of different corporations, and it is hard to find out who is in control of the industries.

These faceless executives are now under more pressure than ever. In anticipation of the strike, they're churning out as many films as possible. That's one short-term benefit for actors. This movie, starring Jim Carrey, was shooting on Hollywood Boulevard. The work rate was speedy, to beat the clock.

Everyone is crazed, there's a lot of nervous energy, because they're afraid they may lose their jobs. The studio executives are working on two or three times the number of productions that they normally do at once. I talk to these people, and they're talking like they don't have time to breathe. They're rushing movies into production, they're trying to finish the movies, because they can't have one even in post production during the strike.

Like a classic Hollywood thriller, this story looks like it'll run right up to the line. It's easy to cast the stars as villains, asking for money when they live in mansions like this. But there is a smoking gun in this drama. Remember the line about the actress who was so stupid, she slept with a screenwriter, thinking it would help her career? Now the writers want to get even with the studios too, creating their own twist in this tale. The screenwriters are due to strike first, in a month's time. People like Charles Pogue are fighting for more money, but they also want greater status within the creative process. They spend months on the script, only to be excluded from the set, and then the director often claims possession of the movie, by putting his name over the posters, and above the opening titles.

We don't understand is why anybody has to have "Joe Blow film" or "A film by Joe Blow", we think that is not only demeaning and detrimental to the writer, but demeaning and detrimental to everybody who worked on the movie. Everybody has their job, and everybody does their job. But we should all be working as a unit. And somehow, when the actor and director are huddled with the studio head, and the writers are saying "Remember me? Hey, throw me a bone". I do not understand the person who generates the project, originates the project, is taken out of the collaborative circle, and tossed aside over here.

So everyone seems to be betraying the studios as the bad guys. But how fair is that?

They're looking the a time right now, when the economy in general in the United States. People say we're on the verge of recession, the business, the economic climate for the entertainment business is iffy, and they're looking at the fact that they're all controlled by multi-national corporations. So the issues at hand are not that significant to them, and they see no reason to give major concession to the writers or actors, because they don't have to.

But it is reckoned the real victims aren't even involved in the negotiations. We' talking blue collar Hollywood, like the make-up artists, the Key Grip, the Best Boy. These technicians on this new indie film, Bug, starring Scream star, Jamie Kennedy, fear if the strike happens, they'll be hurt first.

They will be out of a job for a while, until they resolve it. They'll have to get on unemployment or something, or work in McDonald's.

Even if the strike doesn't happen, it will slow down, since almost everything is almost done already. Either way, it will affect us. If it happens it will affect us, if it doesn't happen, it will affect us.

It pretty much hurts the little guys. Whatever takes money out of my pocket, I don't support.

We're not talking about a shutdown in the steel mills. Who cares about the movie world? The economic impact could be far beyond the film set. LA might not be so sunny and carefree this summer.

It's going to be a significant impact, about 10% of the employment in Los Angeles county is tied to the motion picture and TV production industry. We estimate that if you had a strike, a monthly impact would be $1.8 billion, so that would put a pinch on the local economy.

Hooray for Hollywood, if a strike creates a gap in the market for British and European film-makers. Well, actually, no. The movie business here is likely to suffer just as much. The British actors union, Equity, is already asking its members not to work on any film that's moved to the UK, in order to avoid the strike. The US Screen Actors' Guild wants a boycott of films made in Britain with American finance or pre-sales. That's most big films. British TV will be hit too, if American sitcoms and dramas don't get made.

The key thing is to remember is that the Screen Actors' Guild has been talking to the Guilds in Canada, the UK and Europe, so if there's a strike there won't be any production involving US film, US money, that's important to understand.

Hollywood in Spring is usually running full-throttle on self-congratulation. But this year's awards season has been tempered with foreboding. If things do grind to a halt, who will come out stronger? No Oscars for predicting that the studios will win. They've had the time to stockpile films, because the talent has spent so long talking about getting difficult. For a profession that's all about timing, theirs has been appalling. They're threatening to go without work, just as America slides into recession. Most actors and writers are standing firm.

This has always been a precarious business. If I have to be out of work, I'd rather be out of work fighting for something that's worth having, as opposed to just the caprices of the business.

There have been adverts in the local papers, saying pre-strike stress counselling is available

Is that available? Can I have the number?

If Hollywood does go dark, for once, all those actors' tears at Oscar-time might be justified.

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