Guild relations continue to warm following confab

Leaders of SAG and AFTRA have pledged strong mutual support as they head into bargaining during 2003 and 2004 but remain vague on the overriding question of merging the nation’s top performers unions.

The orgs issued a brief statement Thursday from SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert and AFTRA prexy John Connolly following three days of summit meetings in Los Angeles among elected leaders and staff. Confab, which follows a similar four-day Gotham get-together last month, has fueled speculation among insiders that the unions are laying the groundwork for some kind of merged operation since the meetings are the first such gatherings in three years.

“As we prepare for our joint contract negotiations in 2003 and 2004, we must find ways to coordinate our efforts to face the continuing consolidation of our employers,” Gilbert and Connolly said.

Contracts up in ’03, ’04

The commercials contract expires next October, and the film-TV pact is up in July 2004. Timetable for the commercials negotiations is expected to be set following the Jan. 13 meeting of SAG’s national board.

SAG and AFTRA spokeswomen refused to elaborate on the substance of the discussions, which came about as a result of a jurisdictional dispute over Fox-produced TV shows shot on digital. SAG granted contract waivers to producers allowing AFTRA terms and conditions — which meant background performers and thesps with less than six lines are paid at lower AFTRA rates — but the dispute over which union has the right to organize non-network shows shot on digital remains unresolved.

Digital TV vow

AFTRA has continually promised that it will “aggressively” organize digital TV shows.

Relations between the unions were also strained earlier this year on several other occasions, most notably when SAG withdrew financial support for several branch offices it operated with AFTRA as part of a cost-cutting move.

Gilbert has strongly endorsed working out jurisdictional battles with AFTRA but indicated she won’t immediately push for revisiting a SAG/AFTRA merger in the same form as was defeated in 1999. Although she supported the merger three years ago, Gilbert has contended the same deal would no longer makes sense because of massive changes in the entertainment business.

SAG statistics, based on producer contributions to the pension and health plan, show the commercials contract generates $600 million in annual earnings while the film-TV contract produces $1 billion annually. But the actual film-TV earnings are far higher since they exclude an individual performer’s earnings above $200,000, since P&H contributions are capped at that point.

AFTRA does not disclose earnings, but its contributions to those contracts are far smaller than SAG’s.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more