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Hollywood Cliffhanger


High hopes that the labor turmoil in the entertainment industry would end by midyear have been put on hold by suggestions that talks between the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers could extend beyond June 30 when SAG’s contract expires.

Complicating the outlook is the bitter ongoing dispute between SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists over the contract AFTRA concluded in late May with AMPTP. While the two actors’ unions have in the past negotiated together on what’s known as the theatrical/ TV arrangement, this year AFTRA cut its own deal first.

SAG’s feud with AFTRA and the apparent lack of progress in reaching a new pact with AMPTP has raised at least the specter of another possible walkout. That’s the last thing entertainment workers would like to see, especially members of IATSE below-the-line guilds, who were caught in the crossfire during the recent Writers Guild of America strike and suffered a lot of financial pain.

A new report from the Milken Institute, the financial think tank, says the writers’ strike “dealt a blow to California’s already struggling economy,” helping to tip the state into its current recession. The report projects the overall damage, including ripple effects, will total $2.1 billion by the end of 2008 and result in the loss of 37,700 jobs. The economic effects of the WGA walkout will become less noticeable in 2009, it projects. But if another work stoppage like the potential SAG strike hits the industry, “the impact will be felt for up to an additional year.”

SAG’s leadership has denounced AFTRA’s contract results as inadequate, even though in most respects it mirrors what the Directors Guild of America and the WGA Guild of America were able to extract from the studios earlier this year. SAG president Alan Rosenberg thinks he can achieve better results for the members of his union, though observers are skeptical.

But to that end he has been waging a controversial campaign to get AFTRA members to turn thumbs down on the agreement with the studios, even though it was approved overwhelmingly by the union’s board and is up for a ratification vote soon, with results set to be announced July 7. That comes a week after the expiration date for SAG’s current contract, which is why Rosenberg is talking about keeping the talks with AMPTP going into July.

For now, few in the industry expect a repeat of the acrimonious 100-day strike by writers that severely disrupted film and television production schedules before a new contract was finally reached between the WGA and the studios in February.

And so far there’s been no call for a strike authorization vote, which would require the approval of at least 75 percent of SAG’s members, a tough threshold to meet. But Rosenberg says a strike by SAG can’t be ruled out.

But first SAG leaders think that AFTRA could be forced to return to the table, strengthening SAG’s negotiating position because both unions would be talking with AMPTP jointly.

The two actors’ unions, though separate, also overlap. SAG is bigger, with approximately 120,000 members. AFTRA has 70,000 members. Some 44,000 actors belong to both. Rosenberg is targeting this latter group to vote down the pact with AMPTP.

SAG’s tactics haven’t thrilled AFTRA president Roberta Reardon. She has objected to Rosenberg’s campaign, indicating it may amount to illegal interference in the union’s affairs. “We hope it will not be necessary to pursue legal remedies,” Reardon wrote in response to Rosenberg’s efforts. “But be aware that we would view any attempt by SAG and its leadership to undermine or interfere with our ratification process as a violation of the law and the AFL-CIO constitution.”

Now all sides are pointing fingers over who is to blame for the apparent lack of progress in the intermittent SAG-AMPTP negotiations. SAG feels it was sandbagged by AFTRA’s separate deal. AFTRA suggests that SAG stop trying to undermine its pact and concentrate instead on concluding its own agreement with the studios before the June 30 expiration date for the current contract.

AMPTP is seen as benefiting from the two actors’ unions being at loggerheads, because it has distracted SAG. And it has told the actors’ guild not to expect to get more than what the DGA,WGA and AFTRA managed to achieve, especially with regard to residuals for programming distributed on new technology platforms like the internet and cell phones.

SAG has been asking AMPTP for coverage and residuals for all original new media programs, worried that employers will be able to produce non-union new media programming under a contract similar to that agreed to by the other unions. Another demand is for actors to get proceeds from product placement in programs, which is a source of revenue and profits for producers.

So far there’s been none of the widespread anxiety that was evident in the days leading to the WGA strike. “For us, it’s been business as usual,” say Steven Poster, ASC, president of Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild. But as the days tick down over the next two weeks, Hollywood may have another cliffhanger in store.

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