Contract negotiations between actors and studios have started uncertainly following an aggressive opening salary pitch from Hollywood’s actors that came in high and hard.

The initial offer, unveiled a week ago at the bargaining table, has rocked studio and network execs back on their heels as details emerge.

Both sides had no official comment on specifics, but execs said the economic increases sought were far above the expected ceiling of a $120 million salary hike over three years. As of late Wednesday, with a third day of talks concluded, sources indicated they could not yet tell if actors reps are willing to begin moderating their demands.

Veteran observers believed the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists would be able to make a deal for two to three times the $41 million hike agreed to three weeks ago by the WGA. But with negotiations in early stages, execs expressed hope that there remains ample time for SAG and AFTRA to craft a deal without a strike.

Execs had been hoping the actors might tone down their proposal in the wake of the WGA deal and multiple assurances by SAG/AFTRA reps of a moderate approach. But union sources said the negotiating committee felt it was necessary to take a hard line initially in the wake of Hollywood’s widespread expectation that SAG and AFTRA would quickly accede to a deal similar to the pact announced May 4 by the WGA.

“They do not want to look as if they are merely rubber-stamping the WGA deal,” an insider said. Execs also noted that although reps for the actors have insisted they have crafted a “streamlined” offer of 35 proposals, the number of proposals is closer to 80.

The offer, delivered May 15, asked for significant hikes in minimums and residuals, including bringing Fox Network residuals up to those of the Big Three; tightened language on foreign shoots; and a requirement that producers can only negotiate employment either directly with SAG members or with agents who are either franchised or certified.

The WGA’s deal called for Fox to hike its residual rate from the current 66% of the Big Three to 80% in the first year, 90% in the second and 100% in the third. The writers also won significant gains in made-for-pay TV residuals, the uncapping of foreign residuals, Internet coverage and the emerging “movies on demand” category.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers is likely to respond by saying the proposal falls outside the contract’s coverage. But the proposal could represent an acknowledgment by SAG of the need to work more effectively with the Assn. of Talent Agents, which has accused SAG of not enforcing its own rules against personal managers securing work for actors. The ATA, which has been stalemated by SAG in efforts to update operating rules for agents, was not immediately available for comment.

Bargaining resumed at 2:30 p.m. PDT at the Encino headquarters of the AMPTP after a five-day recess. The sessions were scheduled to continue this afternoon.