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Mood upbeat on first day of SAG talks

Both sides taking time to study offers

“Hollywood Negotiations 2001” has returned following a brief intermission, though the second act so far lacks the drama of the opening.

Eleven days after the Writers Guild of America reached a tentative deal to Hollywood’s widespread relief, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists launched formal film-TV contract talks Tuesday with studios and networks.

Following a 2-1/2 hour session that began with formal exchange of proposals, both sides agreed to take today and Thursday off to study the initial offers and then return to negotiations Friday morning. The two-day recess was not surprising since neither side had revealed any specifics previously about the proposals.

The talks began amid growing optimism that a once-dreaded strike will be averted now that the WGA deal is in hand. Negotiations started at 3 p.m. PDT at the Encino headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, a few minutes after lead negotiators issued cautiously positive statements and announced a news blackout for the duration of the talks.

“We believe that the way to go about these negotiations has already been stated by SAG and AFTRA: problem-solving,” said AMPTP prexy Nick Counter. “Let’s find solutions, not problems, and get to the end as quickly as we can so this town can keep working.”

In response, SAG chief negotiator Brian Walton said, “I want to triple-underline what Nick said about problem-solving. I could not be more delighted that he has embraced that concept, because what we are going to deal with is how do we meet changing times and conditions, especially for the middle-income group. It’s not easy — if it were, some smart people or maybe some not-so-smart people would have figured it out.

“We are not going to negotiate in the media, and we think that’s the best way to get to the result Nick mentions.”

Under the radar

Tuesday’s low-key, no-surprises start of talks contrasted sharply with the WGA’s Jan. 22 high-tension launch, which took place against a backdrop of massive apprehension over prospective back-to-back strikes. Top execs such as Disney’s Robert Iger, DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Warner’s Barry Meyer attended the WGA’s opening; the companies were repped Tuesday by Counter and labor relations execs.

The AMPTP and the WGA observed a news blackout during the nine weeks of talks, provoking varied reactions. Defenders of the concept maintain it enables negotiators to focus on making a deal without distractions, but some union professionals and activists assert it undercuts the Guilds’ leverage by blunting the potential strike threat.

SAG and AFTRA leaders have gone out of their way to insist they do not want to strike. Instead, they have declared the key goal is to improve pay for mid-level thesps but stressed they will be flexible in bargaining.

Though no schedule is set, observers expect the talks will break for perhaps a week or two in early June, then reconvene for final negotiations up to the June 30 contract expiration. SAG and AFTRA are widely viewed as far less likely to strike following the WGA’s deal with the AMPTP, since that settlement — which boosts pay by $41 million over three years — can map the outlines of an actors’ pact.

Showing the way

“The WGA deal really decreases the tension because it pushes both sides toward a pattern,” said Ira Shepard, who negotiated for the ad industry with SAG and AFTRA last year and saw those failed talks lead to a bitter six-month strike. “It’s a terrific development.”

Shepard said he believes the actors unions have committed to a more measured and less confrontational approach than last year, partly because the strike lasted for so long. The work stoppage pushed down SAG members’ earnings 16% last year to $530 million.

“I think SAG and AFTRA have learned from their mistakes,” he added. “It’s important to remember that negotiations are a process of reaching agreement.”

Shepard also said the news blackout heightens the likelihood of a deal. He noted that SAG insisted last year on a departure from that policy by posting both proposals on the Internet on the first day of negotiations with the goal of open communication with members.

“When you go public with the details, it creates two problems,” he said. “It disperses the focus of the negotiations, and people’s positions harden.”

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