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Tinseltown on hold as writers' strike drags on. Standoff hits small businesses hardest

The writers' strike in Hollywood is stubbornly in its 22nd week, and Dennis Grisco can't find enough work for his dogs and cats. Mr. Grisco is owner of a firm that rents animals for use in commercials, television, and movies. His canine credits include ``E.T.'' and ``Flashdance.'' Lately, however, his animal stars have been spending more time in the kennel than on the back lot.

``It has just killed me,'' he says of the writers' strike.

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Grisco isn't alone. As the five-month-old impasse between producers and writers for television and movies drags on, the effects are extending into the farthest reaches of the entertainment industry and beyond.

Hollywood, of course, is used to disruptions and fluctuations in workloads and schedules. But even given the industry's familiarity with uncertainty, the walkout by the Writers' Guild of America has produced an unsual degree of tumult in Tinseltown.

Even if an agreement is reached soon - which seems unlikely after the latest round of failed talks - residues from what is now one of the longest and most disruptive labor disputes in Hollywood history will remain.

With each passing day, the strike that has virtually shut down production of television programs and led to massive layoffs in the industry is threatening to further alter what viewers will see on their TV sets this fall and to test the solidarity of the Writers' Guild. But beyond the impact on producers, writers, actors, and others is the effect on hundreds of businesses that serve the entertainment industry:

Keith Jackson's nursery business has fallen 30 percent. The owner of Jackson Shrub Supply, he provides real and artificial greenery for movie and TV sets. There has been some business, such as the fiber-glass palm trees he recently sent to New York for a TV commercial. But rentals are slower than usual.

The Western Costume Company, which bills itself as the largest costume house in the world, has seen income drop 40 percent since the strike began. ``This strike has hurt more than any one I've seen,'' says John Golden, president of the Hollywood-based firm.

Limousine rentals are down, real estate sales have been slow in Beverly Hills, and there are plenty of empty tables at The Hamptons and El Chiquito Cantina, two watering holes near the Burbank Studios.

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``It has virtually crippled the town,'' says James Ulmer of the Hollywood Reporter, a trade publication.

Residuals, payments to writers for shows sold into syndication, remain the chief sticking point in the dispute between the Writers' Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers - particularly residuals on shows sold abroad.

A week of on-and-off negotiations between the two sides under the aegis of a federal mediator brought no resolution. No new talks were scheduled at time of writing.

Amid the intransigence, producers are vowing to press ahead with alternative TV programing this fall. That includes plans to refilm old television scripts with new casts, import writers from foreign countries, and buy programs from overseas. The networks will lean more heavily on news programming, which is not affected by the strike.

Producers are also stepping up their attempts to woo back striking writers, offering financial and legal protection to those who cross the picket line. To salvage programs for the fall season, producers must begin making shows within the next two weeks.

Some analysts argue that the networks could survive in the short-term with alternative programming. There are even a few advantages: Any lost revenues from advertising as a result of smaller audiences might be offset by declining costs of the alternative programming.

Yet if viewership dips too much, the impact could be great. Moreover, there is the long-term risk that the networks could permanently lose viewers to cable or other forms of entertainment.

``The longer it goes on, the longer people will have to develop new habits - that is the real risk,'' says Jim Goss, a media analyst with Duff & Phelps. The 9,000-member Writers' Guild, meanwhile, is working to keep its ranks in line here and in New York. In Hollywood, a vocal group of 21 dissident members has been threatening to resign active status in the union and return to work. Several hundred writers have sat in on meetings held by the dissident group.

Yet recent guild-sponsored solidarity rallies have been well attended, too. ``Every indication is the membership is going to stand behind the union,'' says guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden.

The strike has impacted writers in varying degrees. One prominent film and television writer, who requested anonymity, says he has missed out on $126,000 in payments over the course of the strike. But he has survived. He had put away a nest egg in anticipation of the walkout. Others haven't fared so well, and are selling shoes or doing other work.

Yet, in some respects, the impact may be worse on many who don't have a direct stake in the outcome. After all, contends one source, writers are used to living with a degree of insecurity. At least 50 percent of the members of the Writers' Guild do not have an assignment at any given time.

The walkout has pinched hundreds of literary agents, story analysts, researchers, musicians, and others touched by the industry or who cater to it.

Although the entertaiment industry is not the biggest employer in town, when it hiccups, the effects are widely felt. ``It has a lot of secondary effects because of the amount of cash it spreads around,'' says Michael Storper, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The pinch has been evident at Barbara's Place, a local company that types a lot of scripts for the industry. Some 36 workers have been laid off there.

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