AMPTP plays waiting game

With SAG suddenly in a hurry to get to the bargaining table, the majors are in the driver’s seat in upcoming negotiations with the actors unions.

In the wake of Saturday’s decision by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to ditch its longstanding bargaining partnership with SAG on the feature-primetime contract, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers held off Monday on deciding which union it will sit down with first.

SAG, which earlier spurned offers to start negotiations in March, now contends it should be first up because it covers all film work and the lion’s share of TV work done by thesps. SAG prexy Alan Rosenberg noted in a message to members that studios want to end the uncertainty over a possible strike, further motivating the AMPTP to start talks as soon as possible as the June 30 contract expiration looms.

“We believe the AMPTP will be eager to do so, especially since motion picture start dates are critical,” he said.

However, it’s widely expected that the congloms will start talks as early as this week with AFTRA, the smaller of the two unions, on the three primetime shows it covers. And that move should bolster the companies’ leverage once they start negotiations with SAG by making the notion of going on strike less attractive.

SAG’s new request for negotiations to begin as soon as possible marks an about-face from the position it took after the majors announced they were ready to go with talks in mid-February. It was previously unwilling to start negotiations until after it had completed its official preparations — despite pressure from high-profile members George Clooney, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep to start ASAP.

SAG had insisted it could not start talks until a joint board meeting approved the joint proposal — an event that had been set for Saturday but was then called off once AFTRA’s board voted to end its negotiating partnership with SAG.

Sources believe the majors will opt for talks with AFTRA first since early informal discussions with SAG leaders haven’t yielded much. Two meetings between SAG leaders and Disney topper Robert Iger and News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin have been unproductive.

Going with AFTRA first will enable the AMPTP to put SAG on the defensive as its June 30 contract expiration nears. And that’s a scenario the majors are likely to relish — especially since SAG was the strongest union supporter of the WGA during the 100-day writers strike.

Both SAG and AFTRA have OK’d bargaining proposals that include nonstarters for the companies, such as increased DVD rates and a shorter period of free usage for promotional purposes for streamed content than the 17- and 24-day windows in the DGA and WGA deals.

SAG leaders have insisted they have to have a more lucrative deal for guild members than the three-year pacts secured in January and February by the directors and writers guilds. By contrast, AFTRA’s leaders have signaled they’re eager to sign a deal as soon as possible, so it’s likely that a pact — one similar to the DGA and WGA accords — will emerge long before the end of the month.

Last month AFTRA reached a deal with the AMPTP covering its network code contract, which covers much of nonprimetime TV work, such as talkshows, gameshows and soaps. That “net code” pact incorporated new-media provisions from the DGA and WGA deals.

Getting a primetime deal in hand will enable AFTRA to start recruiting more producers to align their new shows with an AFTRA contract — which is expected to spur a fierce battle given the vituperative comments coming from the leaders of the unions. Producers will likely be eager to make such deals, even in the face of a possible threat from SAG to tell members not to work on such shows. SAG has already complained long and loud about AFTRA signing cable productions to contracts that offer lower pay rates than SAG contracts.

With an AFTRA deal in place, that union’s ability to sign more shows could further weaken SAG’s hand at the bargaining table.

And even if the AMPTP decided to surprise the town and go first with SAG, the majors could easily decide to turn back to AFTRA should SAG negotiations not go smoothly.

SAG still carries the threat of a strike, although Rosenberg and SAG national exec director Doug Allen have insisted repeatedly they don’t want to go that route. Concerns have risen in recent days that with SAG no longer tied to negotiating jointly with AFTRA, the guild will take a more assertive position at the bargaining table.

For now, the only formal AMPTP talks scheduled are next week’s three-day session with the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which reps about 30,000 West Coast production workers in 18 locals. The current IATSE contract doesn’t expire until August 2009, but an early deal would incorporate some of the recent gains in other contracts and may include a premium from the companies in exchange for labor peace.

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