SAG refocuses on three key issues

AMPTP stands by its June 30 offer

Screen Actors Guild leaders are seeking to zero in on three make-or-break issues as a means of jumpstarting their stalled contract talks with the majors, but the studios say there will be no new talks unless SAG is prepared to change its positions on those issues.

Guild prexy Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen spelled out SAG’s top priorities — involving new-media residuals and jurisdiction and force majeure protections — in an open letter to Nick Counter, prexy of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers; Disney topper Robert Iger; and News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin. The letter was set to run in today’s edition of Daily Variety.

The emphasis on coming to terms with three “threshold issues,” as the guild toppers described them, contrasts with the longer list of issues that SAG negotiators had with the majors’ final offer, as spelled out in recent guild communications to members.

“If we can reach agreement on three threshold issues, we can finish these negotiations,” Rosenberg and Allen wrote. “Other issues divide us, certainly, but we believe those other issues can be successfully addressed once we have resolved these three threshold issues.”

But Counter, in a response to Rosenberg and Allen sent late Monday, said further talks would be not be productive as long as SAG’s positions remained unchanged from their last face-to-face meeting on July 16.

Counter further noted that there are more than just three points of significant disagreement.

“In addition to new media, there are a number of significant issues which, in and of themselves, prevent the parties from reaching agreement,” he wrote.

The latest go-round between SAG and the AMPTP came against the grim backdrop of the continued meltdown on Wall Street and the Dow’s historic 777-point plunge on Monday.

The timing of the open letter urging the majors to resume talks, some observers noted, is likely motivated in part by the pending shakeup in the SAG national board as a result of the election earlier this month.

The letter may be an effort to demonstrate that SAG leaders have gone to great lengths to restart contract talks. Rosenberg and Allen are likely to face more pressure to make a deal with the majors from the newly constituted SAG board, which now includes rivals to the Rosenberg-led Membership First group that has advocated the guild’s hard line in contract talks.

SAG’s Hollywood board will hold its first meeting since the election on Oct. 6, when the new Hollywood members, aligned under the Unite for Strength faction, will assume their seats. SAG’s 71-member national board is set to meet on Oct. 18.

There’s speculation among SAG watchers that the Unite for Strength members will align their interests with the guild’s New York and regional branch members, who have been critical of SAG’s handling of aspects of the contract negotiations.

However, the Unite for Strength candidates have kept quiet since the board election upset was revealed on Sept. 18. And during the campaign, Unite for Strength issued an endorsement of SAG’s contract-negotiating committee’s position in the talks.

The letter from Rosenberg and Allen cited the issue of new-media jurisdiction for all productions, rather than the $15,000 per-minute budget threshold that the majors propose; securing residual fees for made-for-Internet productions when those productions are reused on new-media platforms; and continuing force majeure protections for actors as part of the master SAG contract — protections the majors have sought to eliminate.

SAG has also filed arbitration grievances against some of the majors for what the guild maintains is their failure to live up to the letter of the force majeure clauses in the most recent SAG contract, when actors were sidelined by the 100-day writers strike that began last November. The bill from the writers strike is believed to top $10 million in SAG’s estimation.

The absence of issues that SAG has been hammering for months — including protections for actors in product-placement deals and the use of online clips from movies and TV shows — struck some observers as a conciliatory move on the guild’s part.

There’s also no reference to DVD residual coin — a deal issue that SAG has not raised publicly in some time.

But in the grim economic climate that has rocked the nation for the past few weeks, the majors have little incentive to budge from the take-it-or-leave-it offer they made on June 30, the day SAG’s previous contract expired. Indeed, AMPTP statements in recent weeks have hinted that the offer may have to be revised downward given the prospect that key showbiz markets around the world will endure a prolonged economic downturn.

“In light of the unprecedented economic difficulties facing our industry and the nation, the (AMPTP member) companies continue to hope that the guild’s leadership will recognize the five major labor agreements that have already been concluded this year and will accept our final offer while it remains on the table,” Counter wrote on Monday.

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