Will SAG greenlight sequel to town’s 2000 nail-biter?

Thesp union ready to play the villain again

HOLLYWOOD — It looks like deja vu all over again.

With the Screen Actors Guild’s 2000 strike against advertisers far from a distant memory, Hollywood is bracing for a possible sequel.

At first glance, observers rate chances of another strike as pretty low. But then they take into account SAG’s reputation as the industry’s most enigmatic entity and conclude nothing is impossible.

So with just over a year to go before the SAG-AFTRA commercials contract expires in October 2003, the guild’s mercurial nature has raised the specter of another debilitating work stoppage, particularly if these events occur:

  • Advertisers take a hard line and seek rollbacks, such as elimination of TV network residuals.

  • SAG’s upcoming elections lead to a more militant boardroom.

  • The economy improves, making SAG membership more willing to back a strike.

    The impact of the six-month work stoppage in 2000 is still fresh in many showbiz minds, particularly since it triggered massive uncertainty over strikes in 2001. Within the ever-fractious SAG, however, there’s still considerable disagreement as to the value of the ad strike: Some contend the union won key gains in cable rates and preserved network residuals. Others say the strike merely served as an incentive to shoot with non-union talent outside the United States.

    In any case, several observers suggest starting talks this year rather than next would be a great idea. But reps for SAG and the industry Joint Policy Council contend it’s too early to discuss such a notion; the guild has not even scheduled its wages and working conditions process to hammer out a proposal.

    “We are concerned because no one ever wins in a strike,” admits Matthew Miller, prexy of the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers, which is not a party to negotiations. “Our hope is that both sides learned how devastating a strike can be. So early negotiations might be a very good idea.”

    UCLA management professor Daniel Mitchell also endorses the notion of starting early talks, but doesn’t think such an effort will happen.

    “Part of SAG was able to make the case that the strike was not an unmitigated disaster,” Mitchell notes. “Going early or using a third-party can reduce the chances of a work stoppage, but the question is now whether both sides perceive the need to take early steps. It’s questionable whether SAG can pull itself together to reach that kind of consensus.”

    The 2000 strike was the longest in Hollywood history, and the studios and nets worked themselves into a production frenzy during the first half of 2001 stockpiling against expected strikes by writers and actors on the film-TV contracts. Those strikes were averted at the last minute, mostly due to a recession that blunted the militant edge of most union members.

    Advertisers, then, can take some comfort a year later from the current lousy economy.

    “I don’t think there would be much support within SAG for a strike because of the impact on your career,” admits SAG member Peaches Johnson, who led dozens of pickets two years ago. “There are so many actors, especially young ones, who are just worried about today.”

    There are still potential sticking points, such as unpaid residuals. A 1999 SAG study showed the ad industry under-reported $210,000 of residuals in 38 ads, and the 2000 settlement called for establishing the first tracking system for commercials.

    But the ad industry has dragged its feet, citing technical impediments, and no system has yet been enacted. Funds have been earmarked for that purpose and are set aside at the rate of $1 million a year.

    And SAG’s power ought not to be completely dismissed.

    One of the lessons from the 2000 strike was that once SAG showed its ability to use the star wattage of celebrity members such as Kevin Spacey, Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford, it was able to reach a deal a few weeks later.

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