Studios go to work despite strike talk

Film business to resume after Labor Day

After taking much of the summer off in the hopes of avoiding any more labor strife, the film biz is planning to get back to work after Labor Day.

As the Screen Actors Guild’s contract stalemate with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers enters its second month, the majors are coming to the conclusion that SAG’s all bark and no bite when it comes to going on strike. SAG hasn’t set a strike authorization vote and is viewed as unlikely to do so given the guild’s uncertain ability to command the required 75% approval rate.

TV production has remained largely unaffected by the standoff, which is now expected to drag on at least until late September.

On the film side, however, work on major studio production slowed to a crawl in June as the town braced for the June 30 expiration of SAG’s contract.

With no end in sight, but no picket lines either, the studios are planning to start ramping up production in the coming weeks. A handful of high-profile projects, including Clint Eastwood’s “Grand Torino,” have already started up.

“We’re hopeful that there will be a deal with actors, but we have no choice but to proceed,” Warner Bros. prexy Alan Horn told Daily Variety. “We can’t be in a position where we don’t have movies.”

Disney CEO Robert Iger gave a similar reply on Wednesday during a conference with Wall Street analysts regarding the Mouse House’s earnings. He noted that there hadn’t been any real progress, “or even attempted progress,” on the SAG front and then quickly added that the studio is simply moving on.

“It’s not having a particularly damaging impact on our business because we’ve decided to continue to move forward with at least a number of our productions, and until such time as we feel that’s not prudent, we’re going to continue to basically approach our business in that way,” Iger said.

Top execs at Fox and Sony are also expected to start increasing production soon. Still, activity for the rest of the year will probably lag normal levels since the majors stockpiled pics prior to June 30 as a hedge against a SAG strike.

SAG leaders have been sending mixed messages about a strike to the town for months. On the one hand, guild prexy Alan Rosenberg and national exec director Doug Allen have proclaimed that SAG doesn’t want to strike, but they’ve also said that a work stoppage remains a weapon in their arsenal.

“Any studio or network that suggests Screen Actors Guild is unwilling or unable to take that step, should management prove intractable, is apparently unaware of our history,” Allen said Thursday in response to queries about the stalemate and the resumption of pic production activity by the majors. “Industry representatives would be better served to focus on reaching agreement, as we are, and should refrain from daring SAG members to strike.”

Allen also noted that the guild’s board has given its negotiating committee the power to ask SAG’s 120,000 members for a strike authorization — a move that took place before negotiations started in April.

But with the majors intent on proceeding with business as usual, the situation begs the question of whether SAG is becoming a paper tiger. A concern that SAG is de-leveraging itself has been cited by an upstart faction within SAG that is vying for control of the guild’s board of directors in the upcoming September election. The Unite for Strength faction came together in part out of frustration at the contract situation (Daily Variety, July 24).

Even with the SAG contract expired, several major projects have been shooting recently:

  • Warner Bros.’ “Gran Torino,” directed by and starring Eastwood, has been lensing in Michigan.

  • Sony’s “Angels & Demons,” directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, has been shooting in Los Angeles.

  • Fox’s sequel “Night at the Museum II: Escape From the Smithsonian,” starring Ben Stiller, has been shooting in Vancouver.

  • Paramount/DreamWorks’ “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” directed by Michael Bay and starring Shia LaBeouf, has been in production since June.

  • Disney’s Prince of Persia,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, began shooting last week in Morocco even as the release date was pushed back from next year to 2010.

      The expiration of SAG’s deal has little impact on stars, but it means that day players may be working under terms and conditions of the expired deal — terms that were sweetened in the last contract offer put on the table by the majors. SAG’s also given waivers on more than 620 indie features to companies not affiliated with the AMPTP, with those producers agreeing to adhere to whatever deal terms SAG eventually strikes with the AMPTP.

      In a Hollywood division membership meeting on July 19, SAG leaders maintained a defiant tone, insisting the guild could still go on strike and that negotiations were continuing — despite the congloms’ repeated assertion that they’re not revising their final offer, which was put on the table June 30 and mirrors the deals signed by AFTRA, the DGA and the WGA.

      Allen and Rosenberg received enthusiastic support — including several standing ovations — at the meeting from an SRO crowd of 735. But the biz still has its doubts about whether a sizable number of the guild’s 120,000 members, particularly its most successful working thesps, would support a strike.

      Negotiators for SAG and the AMPTP have not met since July 16, when SAG made a counteroffer that was spurned by the majors. SAG’s board voted unanimously on July 26 that it could not endorse the new-media provisions in the AMPTP’s offer, singling out provisions allowing non-union work in low-budget productions along with a lack of a guarantee of residuals for new-media programs replayed on digital platforms.

      In a message sent out Thursday, the Unite for Strength leaders Amy Brenneman and Ned Vaughn said their goal is to prevent SAG from being de-leveraged. Group’s focus is to push for a merger of SAG and its smaller rival AFTRA in an effort to give thesps maximum clout at the bargaining table.

      The clout of SAG’s current leaders came into question earlier this summer when Rosenberg and Allen exacerbated longstanding hostilities between the two unions by leading a bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to persuade SAG and AFTRA members to vote down AFTRA’s new primetime contract. The pact received 62% approval — lower than usual for a ratification vote but more than enough to allow AFTRA and the majors to seal the deal.

      “Our goal is to end Membership First’s control of the board so we can put the guild on a different path — toward greater unity and strength,” Brenneman and Vaughn said. “If our slate is elected, we’ll end the senseless infighting with AFTRA and instead move to merge our two unions. We’ll work tirelessly to ensure that when we negotiate with our employers in the future, all performers will stand united — not divided into two warring camps.”

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