Thursday, November 15, 2007

WGA Strike French Phrase of the Moment: Force Majeure


by Eriq Gardner

Wga_labor_060506_2 Want to see a Hollywood lawyer kick up a storm? Mention the words “force majeure,” a bit of contract legalese that will likely be gathering heat in the coming months as the WGA strike drags on.

French for a “superior force,” force majeure provisions allow entertainment studios (or anyone) to slip out of contractual obligations with talent when production stops due to unforeseen, unpreventable circumstances — hurricanes, earthquakes....or writers on the streets with picket signs?

Already, one studio has invoked its “force majeure” provisions. Sony Pictures TV notified regulars on two series, 'Til Death" and "Rules of Engagement," that they were being put on unpaid hiatus, remaining exclusive to the studio. On Tuesday, after some grumbling by SAG, AFTRA announced it would be launching an investigation into Sony’s actions.

Of course, the circumstances by which “force majeure” provisions can be legitimately triggered are up for debate. (For an example of standard contract language, click here.) Some insurance companies maintain that the clauses only reflect “Act of God” events like natural disasters. Still, most accept labor disputes as legitimate triggers. The only question then becomes whether a Hollywood studio must wait an appropriate amount of time, say “six to eight weeks” before doing the dirty deed.

Sony may have jumped the gun a bit. But as the writers continue to picket, other studios will surely be tempted to put talent on hiatus or, worse, terminate their deals. Conspiracy theories have already started spreading. Will the studios latch onto “force majeure” to cancel bone-headed overall deals they made with certain actors? The interpretation of "force majeure" could spark an industry-wide legal fight.

No doubt that Hollywood insiders will be boning up on French in the coming months.