Studios move forward with 2010 production

In the face of renewed saber-rattling from SAG, the majors are moving full tilt toward starting production on high-profile pics for their 2010 slates. What’s wrong with this picture?

The sides “can’t even agree on what they’re fighting over or if they’re even fighting anymore,” said an exasperated industry veteran who added that he’d never seen guild-studio relations devolve into such a state of noncommunication.

The big disagreement: While SAG believes the uptick in production will make the majors more vulnerable, the majors believe that actors won’t back SAG leadership on a strike.

Many in the biz have been waiting for the emergence of a diplomat who could play a bridge-building role, much as lawyer Alan Wertheimer did for the Writers Guild of America during the last weeks of the scribes’ 100-day walkout. But the gulf between the sides here is so great that no one seems to even be auditioning for the part, industry vets say.

Execs and top tenpercenters say the longer the limbo period in which thesps work under an expired contract with no strike, the more SAG is seen as ineffectual by the majors.

For months, the industry’s conventional wisdom has been that SAG leaders cannot win a strike authorization vote, because working actors don’t have the stomach or the bank accounts for a prolonged work stoppage on the heels of the WGA strike. The absence of an immediate strike threat after SAG’s previous contract expired on June 30 has turned the stalemate of the past few months into a high-stakes game of chicken.

“It would be unwise if management were to dare our members to go on strike,” Doug Allen, SAG’s national exec director, told Daily Variety. “I don’t think there’s a lot of division between membership and the leadership on the deal (the studios) put on the table June 30. I think the membership understands the need to arm the leadership with all the tools available.”

SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg is unequivocal: “I’m confident that we can get a strike authorization,” he told Daily Variety, despite the high 75% approval required for SAG leaders to call a strike, the shakeup in the composition of SAG’s national board in last month’s election and the downturn in the national economy.

The town will learn whether others in SAG share Rosenberg’s convictions next week, when the guild’s national board meets for the first time since last month’s election injected new blood into the 71-member panel.

Last week, SAG’s negotiating committee passed a resolution urging the guild’s national board to take a strike authorization vote. The negotiating committee had the power to initiate the vote on its own but deferred the matter to the national board in light of the board election, in which the upstart Unite for Strength faction of candidates took seats allocated to the powerful Hollywood branch away from the dominant Membership First faction, led by Rosenberg.

The national board is set to meet at the guild’s HQ on Oct. 18.

Ned Vaughn, newly elected board member and a Unite for Strength organizer, has so far kept quiet on his group’s opinion of the resolution to call for a strike authorization vote. Nor has Unite for Strength been overtly critical of SAG for rejecting the majors’ deal, though it was critical of the guild’s vigorous campaign to convince dual SAG-AFTRA members to reject the agreement that the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists reached in June on a master contract.

“I don’t recall anybody running on a platform of accepting management’s June 30 proposal,” Allen said, regarding the suggestion that the Unite for Strength wins amounted to a rebuke of SAG’s current regime by the membership.

The majors, not surprisingly, are blasting SAG’s efforts to drum up a strike threat as having the “aura of unreality,” an Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers spokesman said.

“SAG negotiators have failed utterly in their attempts to explain why, during this unprecedented financial crisis, they deserve a better deal than the ones negotiated by the other guilds earlier this year during dramatically better economic times,” he said.

From the AMPTP’s perspective, Allen and his hard-charging style is a big part of the problem. Studio brass said they were frustrated in the last lap of the negotiations in May and June as they tried to narrow down the list of issues, only to have SAG negotiators return to items that the AMPTP thought had been tabled.

Last week, in an open letter to AMPTP toppers published in an ad in Daily Variety and elsewhere, Allen and Rosenberg cited three “threshold issues” — involving new-media and force majeure provisions — that stood in the way of a deal.

On Monday, Allen maintained that those three issues had actually been highlighted by the AMPTP side to SAG, and he acknowledged that SAG still had more issues with the proposal. SAG’s biggest beef regarding the new-media residual formula offered is that it includes no payment for repeats via Web streaming of made-for-Internet productions. The question of SAG securing jurisdiction for all made-for-Internet productions is a deal-breaker for the guild, as is the issue of maintaining the force majeure provision in SAG’s master contract.

Allen maintains that SAG has already taken hits in the new-media terms that it has told the AMPTP it will grudgingly accept, which is why the guild feels it has to hold out on principle for coin for repeats of made-for-Internet productions. Otherwise, unlimited repeats without compensation will become an industry norm, Allen said.

As for compromises made by SAG, Allen points to the issue that was a major flashpoint in the 100-day Writers Guild strike, namely, the far lower rate of compensation for the reuse of TV programs and movies via Web streaming and the trend in the TV biz of nets running far fewer on-air repeats. According to Allen, a thesp who would have received about $3,300 for a traditional TV rerun of an episodic series will receive $23 for six months of Web streaming of that same episode after a 17-24 day window of free use for the Net.

“We think that’s enough sacrificing for this contract,” Allen said.

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