CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/FILM DISTRIBUTION - Film promoters' reviews that warn of crisis ahead. The US actors' strike could result in imaginative film ads, Matthew Cowen says

The past few months have seen some frenetic activity around film

distributors' media planning and buying accounts. First there was the

United International Pictures review that was cancelled when the company

opted to sweep its entire global media business into The Media Edge.

Then came the pitches called by Sony and its Columbia Tristar division.

Finally, Entertainment Film Distributors last week awarded its pounds 12

million account to Optimedia after reviewing out of Universal


This is most likely no coincidence. An unprecedented crisis is set to

sweep the international movie industry this summer which could have

serious long-term repercussions for this specialist area of planning and


The US Screen Actors Guild is hurtling towards a general strike, set to

begin in June, that will make its boycott of commercials last year look

like a minor inconvenience. All SAG members - that means any actor who

has worked on a US film - will walk out on any film project which is

even partly funded by an American studio. The strike could last for more

than six months, perhaps as much as a year, and will effectively bring

the film industry to a grinding halt, since its breadth means US studios

will not be able to bypass the action by filming abroad.

The SAG is demanding more money for film actors and its resolve in

achieving this should not be questioned.

To make matters worse, a similar dispute between the studios and the

Writers Guild of America is set to result in a strike a month earlier

(in May). Even if a studio could persuade actors to risk their careers,

it would be unlikely to have a script to put in front of them.

'It's a mess,' the international editor of Screen International, Patrick

Frasier, says. 'The effects are already being felt now and they could

last until 2002 - and that's if the strike only lasts for a few months.

It affects not only what's coming down the pipe in America but in the

rest of the world as well.'

The first movies affected by the strike will be released towards the end

of the year. But film distribution companies are already feeling the

pinch. 'They've spent the last few months trying to stock up by buying

very busily,' Frasier adds. 'They're spending most of the year's

acquisition budgets now.' As if that wasn't enough to encourage a bit of

belt-tightening among producers, the need to rush films into production

before the deadline has placed actors and directors at a premium and

allowed them to jack up their prices.

These extra costs could tempt the distributors to make equivalent cuts

in their promotional budgets. However, the prospect of being told to

make money work harder is only the start of the impact on media


Planning and buying for film releases is, in many ways, a unique

discipline, and not only because the involvement of creative agencies in

the process is small. 'You are buying media in the short term,' BBJ's

board director, Matthew Platts, says. 'The first weekend's box office is

vitally important to a film's success. You're not necessarily looking to

build a brand.'

In getting those opening weekend bums on seats, buyers must balance a

unique set of interests as well as dealing with media owners who hold an

exceptionally high proportion of the cards. 'You tend to use the same

space a lot of the time and there are also a lot of editorial tie-ins

involved,' Andy Hearnshaw of New PHD says. 'This means that some places

have you over a barrel.'

With all this in mind, it's difficult to see how savings can be made if

they are demanded. Of course, if film releases were simply to dry up,

then we could expect accounts to lie dormant. However, it's more likely

that a different breed of films will dominate cinemas in the next year

or so. 'It's an opportunity for more films to be produced in Europe and

elsewhere,' Frasier says.

With a shift away from the special effects-drenched US blockbusters, a

new range of issues will confront planners and buyers. Ironically

enough, the promotion of smaller films demands a much larger spend than

that of event movies. 'Pearl Harbour will probably have so much word of

mouth that you won't have to do much,' says Platt of what will be one of

the last blockbusters produced before the strike. 'You tend to spend

more on the smaller titles.'

So, if the money turns out to be there, art house movies will generate

bigger spends for agencies. But if distributors do feel the need to shop

around for lower prices, then it will be increasingly difficult to meet

their demands.

There are further complicating factors. If the quality of movies drops

because of rushed production schedules, then agencies may have to

abandon their policy of not throwing money at movies likely to be panned

by the critics. And if the frequency of releases is reduced, which seems

likely, then agencies will have to keep audiences coming in for much

longer than the opening week.

If distributors react to all this by allowing their agencies the freedom

to think around the problems, then the strike could yet be a liberating

experience for film promotion. Planners are not currently encouraged to

think beyond the formula of fast-cut trailers and Underground posters,

but a more imaginative and cheaper approach to the process could be

necessitated in the next few months.

Of course, like most films, this could be hypothetical. The strike may

yet be averted and the media challenge remain unchanged. But UIP, Sony

and EFD don't seem to be taking that chance.