The possibility of an industry-wide stoppage in the summer of 2008 by the US industry's writers', actors' and directors' guilds is already having an impact in North America - an impact that could soon be felt in the international marketplace.
As they did in 2000-01, the last time there was a threat of widespread labour action in Hollywood, the studios are preparing for a possible stoppage by putting as many projects as they can into production before next March. That is considered the last start date that would allow a project to complete production before any strike begins.
The stockpiling is expected to mean a surge in production activity over the next seven months followed by a slump next summer. Even if an actual strike is averted (as it was in 2001), the increase in production will leave fewer projects ready to shoot after June, resulting in a de facto strike.
Figures released recently by FilmLA, which co-ordinates permits for location shoots in the Los Angeles area, show the surge has already begun. Location shooting by feature films was up 29% in the second quarter of this year and that, says FilmLA president Steve MacDonald, 'is consistent with activity we have tracked in other periods preceding contract negotiations.
We may be seeing a repeat of what happened in 2001 (which actually saw a 45% jump in production in the quarter before contract talks), when production rose prior to labour negotiations and then dropped significantly after the negotiations concluded.'
Exactly how Hollywood stockpiling and a real or de facto strike will impact on the international film industry is difficult to assess this early in the game, but in a globalised industry there is certain to be a ripple effect. International exhibitors and the studios' local distribution offices are likely to be the least affected. Unless there is a real and protracted strike next summer, stockpiling should allow the studios to keep international pipelines filled as normal.
There is, however, speculation that the production surge could mean a diminution in the quality of the studios' output. As one Hollywood lawyer puts it, in pre-strike mode the studios 'rush into production with what they've got. Production speeds up, development slows down to nothing and you sometimes get pictures greenlit that wouldn't be greenlit if they had more time.'
And if there is a real strike next summer, stars may not be available for international publicity tours to promote already-completed summer releases, depriving local studio offices of one weapon in their marketing arsenals.
Boom and bust
For international production centres and the crews that keep them running the ripple effect could be more noticeable.
Studios such as the UK's Pinewood and Shepperton, Germany's Babelsberg and the Czech Republic's Barrandov, which regularly host US studio productions - including at present United Artists' Valkyrie, Warner Bros' Speed Demons and Walt Disney's The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian - may experience an echo of the production surge and slump expected in Hollywood. Studios in Canada are reportedly already benefiting from Hollywood's push to get projects in the can before a strike threat becomes imminent.
The UK could be particularly affected, given the high level of US production that has recently been keeping British studios and crews busy. According to figures from the UK Film Council, inward investment into the territory from single-country projects (as opposed to co-productions with the UK) doubled in 2006 to $1bn (£502.8m). And most of those projects were US studio films, among them The Bourne Ultimatum, Stardust and The Golden Compass.
London-based British Film Commissioner Colin Brown, who recently met with several US studios to discuss production plans, says he expects the UK to see some increase in US-backed production over the next six or seven months as the studios ramp up production. But he believes the surge will not be as big as the last time the studios prepared for a possible strike.
'Last time everything was pulled off the shelf and some films were made that shouldn't have been made,' Brown says. 'I really don't think that's the way it is this time. I'm sure that we will see an increase in production, but we've yet to see people piling in.'
US projects already shooting in the UK or set to shoot there before the pre-strike deadline include Universal's Mamma Mia!, Initial Entertainment Group's Young Victoria, Warner Bros' Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince and Sony's 22nd James Bond film.
If there is a fall-off in UK-based US production next summer it could be largely compensated for, Brown suggests, by an increase in UK productions using UK actors. 'We won't have any major interruption in terms of the utilisation of studios and facilities here because (UK films) will be coming in then,' he says.
The situation could be complicated further if an actual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strike causes some UK actors to stop work also, either in sympathy or because they are members of SAG as well as UK actors' union Equity.
A quiet Cannes market
The impact of Hollywood's pre-strike manoeuvres on the international sales and acquisition business is particularly hard to predict.
At the very least, the delivery of independently made and distributed projects to international buyers could be disrupted as studios tie up more of the available above- and below-the-line talent in a push to complete pre-strike pictures.
Buyers can probably expect more than the usual level of cast changes in projects set to shoot before next spring. And pre-strike uncertainty could mean an unusually quiet Cannes market next May, with sales companies having a dearth of new projects to announce. Some buyers and sellers blamed the quiet Cannes of 2001 on pre-strike jitters, and that year a strike was already half-averted because the studios had just signed a new deal with writers and begun talks with actors.
There is some danger that strike fears might translate into higher asking prices for larger independent pictures. With many major stars already booked for what are expected to be their two or three pre-strike projects, studios could soon turn to lower echelon names, driving up the price of the kind of talent that usually headlines smaller independent films. And sales companies might try to pass some of that price increase on to buyers.
The problem for producers and sellers is that buyers will still only want to pay what they think a project is worth - unless and until, that is, a protracted strike makes them really desperate for product.
A real or de facto strike could conceivably create fresh opportunities for non-US producers and sellers. Producers might find US sales companies eager to take on non-US projects; and sellers might find US distributors becoming more open to international projects, especially if a real strike drags on and leaves the distributors short of releasable product.
The problem for non-US producers and sellers will be finding talent willing to work during a US actors' strike. Many bigger international actors are members of both their own union and SAG and therefore would be technically forbidden to work during a strike on any project intended for US distribution.
Ultimately, independent US production and sales companies may simply be able to ride out a real or de facto strike by virtue of their size and ability to remain selective.
'If you're running a big company and you have to crank out 12 films a year to keep the pipeline fed, you're going to be under a lot of pressure if there's a prolonged strike,' argues Eric Christenson, president of sales and distribution at Initial Entertainment Group.
'We're a smaller boutique operation, so there's not the sense of urgency here.'
Still, Christenson adds, even boutique operations will need to guard against compromising their projects as strike fever mounts.
'You have to be careful not to just rush something into production because there's a potential strike looming,' he says. 'If it's not ready, the end result's going to be inferior.'