Hollywood labor pains

SAG downplays strike rumors; studios prepare

It’s too soon to tell whether an actors’ strike is likely or not, but the rumors flying around would have you believe it’s all but inevitable.

The Screen Actors Guild, immersed in difficult contract talks with producers, is busy trying to quell murmurs that a potentially crippling walkout is on the way.

But as negotiators for SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists sit down for the second week of talks with representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, and their widely divergent positions become increasingly apparent, some studios have begun shifting shooting schedules so that productions are not interrupted should a strike occur after the actors’ contract expires on June 30.

“Your SAG and AFTRA executives … are working to achieve the most favorable contract terms possible,” says a SAG letter due to be mailed to members on Wednesday. “Our intention is to accomplish that without resorting to a work stoppage, if at all possible. Any rumors you may have heard about a strike are just that — rumors.”

Reports fray nerves

Although negotiators say they are doing everything they can to keep the fast-track talks secret, frayed nerves have been exacerbated by published suggestions that a work stoppage is practically a certainty if the poles-apart positions of labor and management remain unreconciled. Neither did it help that many of the two sides’ proposals entered the public realm so soon after the talks began.

“We regret that confidential materials and reports on the negotiation were leaked at this extremely early stage of the process,” said a joint statement released Friday by AMPTP president Nicholas J. Counter, SAG national exec director Ken Orsatti and Bruce York, who holds the same title at AF-TRA. “For nearly a decade, fast-track negotiations have been an effective solution to the industry practice of a production slowdown just prior to the expiration of a major union contract.”

The statement said both sides have “every intention of continuing those talks, in good faith, in an effort to make a deal by April 2” — well in advance of the contract’s expiration date. In addition, the officials said, “We will continue to respect the confidentiality agreement which prohibits any comment on the current status of the talks.”

Bold concessions

Still, SAG made clear in its members letter that it is seeking a number of bold concessions, some of them diametrically opposed to what producers want. Among the actors’ demands:

  • Double the current minimum payments of foreign residuals and an ongoing share of revenue from foreign telecasts;

  • Replace the current revenue-based residuals formula for TV programs released to basic cable with a schedule of fixed residual payments equivalent to those payable for syndicated reruns;

  • Increase all minimum rates of compensation, rerun ceilings, money breaks, reimbursement rates, allowances and penalties by 8% per year effec-tive July 1 this year, 1999 and 2000;

  • Insure that pension and health contributions be made on all residual payments;

  • Extend contract coverage to a greatly expanded group of overscale and guest-star performers, as well as “animation reference performers” and “warm-up performers”;

  • Give screen credit to all principal performers in motion pictures, and provide full-screen credits for such performers on TV;

  • Require payment to performers for use of material incorporated in other media, and protect against digital alteration of a performance, or morphing, without the performer’s prior written consent.

  • Expand the definition of “network” to include Fox Broadcasting, United Paramount and WB, and any new comparable TV system, to insure compensation and residual parity with ABC, CBS and NBC.

    Producers’ demands

    For their part, producers want salary and residual reductions all around, including drops in payments for actors in films costing under $15 million and TV movies with budgets under $5 million, as well as for performers with 10 speaking lines or less. Producers also want to pay less into pension and health funds and less for overtime and travel expenses. In addition, they propose recouping costs for negatives, prints and ads before paying residuals.

    With an eye on the chance of a strike, some studios are rethinking production schedules for upcoming projects, although no one wants to spread fear by making any big announcements.

    “Everyone’s affected,” said Michael Grillo, physical production chief for features at DreamWorks. “We strongly hope and believe that SAG and producers, through hard work, can reach an agreement that allows the actors to work and the studios to keep making movies and TV shows.”

    Nevertheless, he said, “We want to take steps to minimize the risk to any of our productions.” As a result, the studio plans to keep a close watch on the negotiations and, in early April, decide whether to proceed with two shoots scheduled for mid-June — “Forces of Nature” and “The Crew.”

    “We’ll re-evaluate and do the smart thing,” Grillo said. “Everything else will be completed prior to a strike date.”

    At New Line Cinema, basking in the success of “The Wedding Singer,” spokesman Steve Elzer downplayed the effect of the rumors on the company.

    “This does not affect us because there are no projects for it to jeopardize,” Elzer said. “We have no projects that we plan to greenlight at present.”

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