Majors 'set the record straight' on Website

The gloves have come off in the contract negotiations between the majors and Screen Actors Guild.

With the SAG talks going nowhere fast, the majors have gone on the offensive by criticizing the guild’s demands as unreasonable and unrealistic. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers made the assertion at midday Wednesday in a negotiations update to members titled “Setting the record straight” posted on the AMPTP website.

Though the language was more measured and respectful than the harsh tone often employed by the majors during the writers strike, the AMPTP’s message was clear: Unless SAG backs off its demands on DVD and new media soon, it can forget about a deal even if thesps go on strike.

And that raises the scenario of rival performers union AFTRA making a deal as early as next week and then capitalizing on that pact by expanding its coverage of primetime TV skeins — at SAG’s expense. The AMPTP’s decision to go public with the sticking points in the talks so far appears to be aimed at provoking SAG moderates to pressure guild leaders to make a deal as soon as possible rather than stringing out negotiations toward the June 30 expiration.

In a posting on its website, SAG disputed the AMPTP assertion that it had over-reached.

“The AMPTP knows that we did not state that they had to agree to all of our non-new-media proposals,” it said. “We expect the AMPTP to negotiate in good faith, and we will do the same.”

The current round of talks, which launched April 15, are scheduled to conclude Friday. The majors were already set to begin negotiations with AFTRA on Monday. If SAG goes on strike with an AFTRA deal already in place, AFTRA could offer the incentive to AMPTP member companies of continuing with TV production if their new shows sign AFTRA agreements.

Traditionally, the thesp unions have divided the landscape by granting SAG jurisdiction over all shows shot on film while AFTRA covered all electronic production, a la talkshows and gameshows; the prevalence of digital production on primetime skeins has, however, blurred those distinctions.

SAG hasn’t yet asked its 120,000 members for a strike authorization, and it’s uncertain when it would return to the bargaining table after this week. AFTRA’s viewed as much more likely than SAG to sign a deal as its leaders are less assertive than SAG’s, and it has already incorporated some of the WGA and DGA new-media terms into its network code deal, signed in early March.

AFTRA announced late Wednesday that its members had “overwhemingly” ratified the net code deal. And the current SAG and AFTRA situation — with AFTRA set to make the new-media deal for actors — resembles the DGA-WGA dynamic of several months ago in which the less-militant DGA hammered out the terms, which were then largely mirrored in the subsequent WGA pact.

And though the studios have stressed that the talks with SAG have so far been cordial, the six-page update issued Wednesday made it clear that little progress has been achieved since last week’s announcement that the AMPTP was giving SAG an extra week to close the “significant gaps” between the two sides.

“Candidly, we must offer the same assessment of the negotiations today,” the AMPTP said. “Although both parties have spent considerable time in the negotiating room, we are not yet close to an agreement.”

The key complaint stems from SAG’s unwillingness to adhere to the pattern set in the DGA and WGA deals. SAG national exec director Doug Allen and president Alan Rosenberg had said repeatedly in the run-up to talks that the guild wasn’t interested in following the pattern — and it appears they have not backed off that position even with the talks in their third week and a June 30 contract expiration approaching.

After 13 days at the bargaining table, the AMPTP blamed SAG for having thrown a monkey wrench into the process by rejecting what it called “the framework for new media” that was established in the DGA, WGA and AFTRA network code pacts.

“Last week, SAG indicated that it would be willing to live within the existing new-media framework — but only with more than 70 changes to the framework, some of which would go a long way toward making the framework unworkable,” the AMPTP said.

The companies also said SAG had insisted that it would agree to the new-media terms only if the AMPTP accepted all its other demands in traditional media — a point that SAG disputes.

“Unfortunately, these demands — including a doubling of the existing DVD formula and huge increases in compensation and benefits — would result in enormous cost increases that we are not willing to accept,” the companies said.

“The SAG Basic and TV agreements are mature labor pacts for mature business. In such circumstances, employers in other industries typically negotiate reductions and efficiencies to reduce costs. We are not seeking to do this. But we cannot responsibly accept the unprecedented double-digit increases in DVD residuals and conditions sought by SAG or wage hikes that in some cases reach 200%.”

It’s understood that SAG’s backed off on its earlier demand for a shorter promotional window for streamed shows. The WGA and DGA deals provide that no residuals have to be paid on streaming for the first 17 days for TV series (24 days on new shows) — a deal point the WGA also fought but begrudgingly accepted for the sake of settling the strike.

It’s understood that SAG’s also perturbed over what it sees as more than 30 changes sought by the AMPTP in the new-media language.

The AMPTP also delivered a point-by-point refutation of the four SAG messages to members. SAG says earnings are declining, but the AMPTP says they’ve risen by 24% since 2003; SAG says it wants a “reasonable” rate on DVD residuals, but the AMPTP maintains that SAG’s demanding a $500 million per year hike; and SAG says it takes more work to qualify for its health plan, while the AMPTP says the benefits would be “the envy of middle-class Americans.”

SAG said in its website response that it stands by its research.

“We are not surprised that the employers dispute the economic hardships that actors are facing,” the guild said. “You know better. We will not negotiate this contract in the press. Instead, we are focused on reaching a fair contract that addresses your needs as professional actors.”

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