AMPTP expected to accept federal mediator

The sides are poised to get back to the bargaining table soon — but the more important question is whether SAG or the majors are inclined to budge enough to reach a deal.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is expected to confirm as early as today that it has agreed to resume contract talks with the Screen Actors Guild with the help of a federal mediator. SAG’s national board issued the request for a mediator to step in following the guild’s board meeting last weekend.

If the sides do set a powwow date with federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez, it will be their first face-to-face sesh since July 16.

After more than a three-month standoff between the sides, however, there’s skepticism in the biz as to whether the new round of talks will amount to anything. The request for the mediator appears to have been a compromise between SAG factions at odds over what the guild’s next move should be.

Politically, the studios can’t afford to shun the request for a mediator as they would risk giving SAG leaders ammo in their efforts to convince members that they need to strike to force a better offer from the congloms. But even if the majors do come back to the table, they’ve made it clear that they have no intention of sweetening the deal that has already been accepted by the Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America and SAG’s rival, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. In fact, the AMPTP has continued to hint in its public statements that given the economic slowdown hitting the biz, the deal template ironed out months ago with other guilds may need revision — in a manner that it would make it even less palatable to SAG.

“I think it’s genuinely foolhardy to think this is an appropriate time to go out on strike,” Peter Chernin, News Corp. prexy and a key player in this year’s guild contract dramas, said at an industry event last week.

Meanwhile, SAG’s top leaders haven’t softened their stance on what they view as the deal’s shortcomings. The speculation is that the SAG board’s decision to call for a mediator rather than push ahead with conducting a strike authorization vote was a bid to buy time to stir up support for a strike threat among the rank and file — especially if the majors resist the mediator’s efforts to reach a settlement.

SAG’s tactical approach to the next few weeks is complicated by the shakeup on its national board. Last month’s election saw the emergence of a moderate faction that has been critical of the leadership’s handling of the contract talks. The new faction may push for the leadership to ease its stance on some issues for the sake of ending the impasse. SAG’s most recent contract expired June 30.

On Wednesday, AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand would say only that SAG’s request for a mediator to join the talks was “under consideration.”

It’s unclear how soon talks would start and what kind of bargaining format Gonzalez would employ. The AMPTP and SAG held more than 40 negotiating sessions between mid-April and mid-July.

For its part, SAG will probably reiterate that it’s narrowed its demands to three key issues, spelled out in a Sept. 30 announcement — new-media jurisdiction for all productions, rather than the $15,000 per-minute budget threshold that the majors propose; securing residual fees for made-for-Internet productions when those productions are reused on new-media platforms; and continuing force majeure protections for actors, which the majors have sought to eliminate.

SAG’s national board decided last weekend that if the guild’s negotiating committee determines that the new round of talks has failed, the negotiating committee would then have the power to ask SAG members for a strike authorization — a process that would take 30-45 days.

For SAG to go on strike, more than 75% of members voting would have to approve the authorization; the national board would have the final decision on a work stoppage.

SAG’s negotiating committee is still dominated by the more aggressive Membership First faction, but control of the national board shifted last month to a coalition of moderates, consisting of the New York and regional reps and the Unite for Strength faction, who have a one-vote majority on the 71-member board. The elections were perceived as a rebuke to Membership First on how the contract negotiations had been conducted.

SAG is adding four members to the 13-member negotiation committee — two from the Hollywood division, one from the New York division and one from the regional branch division. Those appointments haven’t been made yet, but there is the potential for injecting a more moderate voice on the negotiating committee, which could also affect the tenor of the new round of bargaining sessions with the AMPTP.

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