SAG ‘Master’ plan

Guild warning targets pricey Fox saga

The Screen Actors Guild is drawing a line in the sand in Baja California.

SAG, newly commited to hard-line enforcement of its rules, has specifically told its members to refuse to sign non-union contracts for Russell Crowe’s mega-budget “Master and Commander.”

The seafaring drama, a Peter Weir-adaptation of the Patrick O’Brian book series, is set to begin filming in Baja California this summer. SAG has insisted it won’t budge from its May 1 deadline for “Global Rule One,” a groundbreaking change in its enforcement of work rules to include disciplining members who work non-union outside the Untied States.

SAG spokeswoman Ilyanne Kichaven said the Guild recently became aware that casting directors on the film were seeking below-the-line actors to sign non-union contracts for the film. The Guild reacted by officially advising members of its San Diego branch that they should not sign such contracts.

“Master and Commander” is a tentpole project that has been developed by Fox with Universal/Miramax investing. Kichaven said SAG has contacted Fox and Miramax to explain its position on the contracts and plans to contact Crowe after the Academy Awards ceremonies.

In response, Fox said the studio has no plans to ask SAG members to violate Rule One. “It is our intent that members of SAG will be employed under SAG contracts,” a spokeswoman said.

Kichaven said “Master and Commander” is not the only project on which SAG is taking such steps but noted that the pic’s prominence made it imperative that the guild begin efforts to inform members about the non-union deals. “Global Rule One is at the forefront of our agenda at SAG and we are taking it very seriously,” she added.

‘Titanic’ tank

Much of the $135 million project will be filmed at Fox Studios Baja, the Mexico studio with the gigantic water tank built to house James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Kichaven noted that SAG also has concerns about whether SAG stunt coordinators would be employed since casting directors were seeking actors to train for 12 weeks to work on a ship.

SAG’s Rule One explicitly bars members from working for non-signatory producers, but the rules haven’t been enforced against the thesps who routinely perform nonunion work in places like Vancouver and Prague. But once May arrives, violators could face trial boards, with sanctions including reprimands, fines, suspension and expulsion.

SAG’s national board approved the Global Rule One initiative last fall on a unanimous vote; it’s been the only major initiative not to create a massive rift within the notoriously contentious boardroom during the past year. The Guild launched an informational campaign last September with endorsements from Harrison Ford, Holly Hunter and Laurence Fishburne, and held its first public push last month at a seminar at the American Film Market in Santa Monica.

To stem migration

SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert stressed at the event that the enforcement move had come due to the massive migration of film and TV production to offshore locations in the past 15 years. She also cited stats showing a five-year loss of nearly $23 million in potential contributions to the SAG pension and health plan due to American productions shot abroad without SAG contracts and noted the Guild has projected that those losses will surge to $36 million over the next five years.

That trend, Gilbert noted, has been a key factor in driving up the plan’s health insurance eligibility requirements.

Fox greenlit “Master” two months ago when Crowe committed to star (Daily Variety, Jan. 16). Crowe will play Royal Navy Capt. Jack Aubrey, a soldier given his first command of a British sailing vessel sent to battle.

The film that will be produced by Samuel Goldwyn and was hatched at his company when current Fox topper Tom Rothman was prexy there. Rothman, TCF production prexy Hutch Parker and senior veep Michael Andreen have labored years with Weir on the project.

Crowe would probably follow “Master and Commander” by making his directorial debut on and starring in the Intermedia-based “The Long Green Shore,” the WWII tale that is now being adapted by scribe Michael Petroni. He would then don the boxing gloves for “Cinderella Man” to star as Jim Braddock, the heavyweight boxing legend, to be helmed by Lasse Hallstrom, with Universal and Miramax co-financing.

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