AFTRA agrees to postpone talks

Though large gaps remain between SAG and the majors, the two sides have made enough headway toward a feature-primetime deal to extend bargaining an extra week until May 2.

Wednesday’s joint SAG-AMPTP announcement — the first sign of any progress from eight days of contract talks — came a few minutes after AFTRA disclosed it had agreed to postpone next week’s start of its own primetime negotiations until May 5. AFTRA’s move came in response to a request from the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The congloms’ decision to seek another week of talks with the Screen Actors Guild should serve to cool the town’s fears of a SAG strike this summer. But it’s obviously not all hearts and flowers at the bargaining table, with the majors stressing they’re nowhere near a deal and need another week to reach that goal.

“We made our request because we owe it to our entire industry to give the current SAG-AMPTP talks every opportunity to result in an agreement,” the AMPTP said in a posting on its website. “At this time there remain significant gaps between the two parties, and we hope to use the extra time to narrow these gaps.”

The announcement came a few hours after SAG and the AMPTP launched an eighth day of negotiations at AMPTP heaquarters in Encino, where talks are expected to resume today. Until Wednesday, both sides had adhered to an unofficial news blackout that stood in stark contrast to the vitriolic exchange of attacks during last year’s Writers Guild of America negotiations.

SAG’s contract expires June 30, and guild leaders have asserted repeatedly that the guild doesn’t want to strike. But those proclamations haven’t stopped studios from ramping up production and stockpiling features as a hedge against a work stoppage.

For SAG to make a deal, it will have to back off its demands for improved DVD residuals and new-media terms that are better than those in the Directors Guild of America and WGA pacts. Both positions are nonstarters for the majors, which have insisted they will only sign a SAG deal that follows the pattern set by the DGA and WGA.

SAG’s been sending mixed signals as to how strongly it will adhere to those stances. The guild sent an email to members earlier this week that omitted any mention of DVD or new media — even though SAG national exec director Doug Allen and president Alan Rosenberg had blasted the DGA deal in late January as deeply flawed.

SAG’s latest missive highlighted the need to improve earnings for middle-income actors and stressed the need for language dealing with “forced endorsement” via product placement.

Wednesday’s move by the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists to step aside for SAG represents a bit of a reversal for the perforners union. It comes three weeks after it angrily broke off the Phase One negotiating partnership with SAG in late March, following a series of jurisdictional disputes that culminated in actors on “The Bold and the Beautiful” attempting to decertify AFTRA as their bargaining rep in favor of SAG.

AFTRA said Wednesday that it has agreed to the postponement in hopes that the SAG negotiations will lead to a deal before AFTRA starts its own talks.

“The AFTRA negotiating committee would like to give the negotiations already under way between the AMPTP and the Screen Actors Guild a chance to succeed, and while AFTRA is ready to begin negotiations now, we believe we can best serve our members’ interests by briefly postponing our negotiations,” the union said. “AFTRA remains focused on achieving important gains for our members.”

AFTRA had been scheduled to start its talks Monday concerning primetime network shows including “Rules of Engagement,” “Cashmere Mafia,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Flight of the Conchords” and ” ‘Til Death.”

If SAG isn’t able to reach a deal before AFTRA, it may face the prospect of a more pragmatic AFTRA signing its own deal first and using that to expand coverage in areas of shared jurisdiction.

Yet the AMPTP’s willingness to give SAG another week shows that the majors would prefer to reach an agreement with the guild first if at all possible.

Going the SAG-first route would more quickly lift the lingering uncertainty pervading Hollywood’s feature development and production. In addition, should SAG have to wait for an AFTRA deal, the subsequent round of talks could become more difficult since SAG leaders and members would likely become more resentful and less interested in compromise.

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