The Real Stars Sweat Out the Strike Talks

Hollywood's Secret: It's a small-company town

A strike by Hollywood's actors and writers wouldn't have much effect on Lyle Waggoner, the actor. Although he was famous in the 1970s as a cast member of The Carol Burnett Show, he doesn't act much these days.

Lyle Waggoner the entrepreneur, on the other hand, would be in big trouble. In 1979, the performer put his acting career on hold and launched Star Waggons Inc., which leases trailers to production companies that keep talent comfortable on location shoots. The 40-foot trailers cost about $100,000 and are appointed with plush carpeting, leather easy chairs, and satellite televisions, which makes them popular with TV stars such as Martin Sheen of the The West Wing, real Presidents such as Bill Clinton (who leased one for his 1996 swing through California), and pop icon Madonna. A prolonged strike, says Waggoner, 66, could shut down his Sylmar (Calif.) company, idling his 50 employees and taking a bite out of his $12 million in revenues. "I just hope the actors and writers don't get too greedy," he says.

It's one of the entertainment industry's untold stories: For all the attention lavished on studio moguls and A-list stars, Hollywood is a small-company town powered by largely unknown entrepreneurs. Nearly 99% of the 12,000 companies that make up the motion picture and television industry have fewer than 100 employees, and nearly three-quarters have fewer than four.

`INNOCENT BYSTANDERS'. Yet these small businesses have no input in contract negotiations between the studios and the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild. The talks revolve around difficult issues of residual payments and intellectual property. (At press time, the writers were said to be close to a deal.) "We're innocent bystanders," frets Howard Brock, a partner at Matchframe Video, a Burbank (Calif.) post-production house with 75 employees.

Already, entrepreneurs on the front end of the production process, such as casting directors and prop companies, are seeing their work disappear. Waggoner says it's only a matter of time before the trailers start stacking up at his storage yard: "We're expecting a major slowdown."

Of course, Waggoner is used to uncertainty, because the life of a small-business owner in Hollywood often resembles that of an actor. For ingenues and entrepreneurs alike, show biz is a tough road. "It's a feast-or-famine business," says independent producer David Blocker, who recently produced the Robert De Niro vehicle 15 Minutes. "We're all used to it."

Strikes are just another part of the landscape. Over the past 50 years, actors and writers have struck about half a dozen times each--most recently in 1988, when the Writers' Guild walked out for more than five months.

Waggoner made it through that one, though many of his competitors didn't. A study by the Los Angeles mayor's office found that even a brief, two-month strike in 2001 would cost the city 47,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in lost income. But Waggoner figures he'll pull through. The television production season is wrapping up anyway, and his employees need to get his 300 trailers in shape for the next season. "Strike or not, our people will be working very hard," he says. Clearly, entrepreneur is one role Waggoner has nailed.

By Christopher Woodard

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