HOLLYWOOD — Departing from the script of last year’s bitter strike, the Screen Actors Guild has been surprising Hollywood by taking a moderate approach toward this week’s start of film-TV contract negotiations.

“I think it’s fair to say the leadership has really toned it down,” said SAG member Antony Acker, a commercial actor who was active in the strike. “I felt much more on the edge of my chair last year. My sense is that the train is not going to get pushed off the tracks this time.”

Reps of SAG and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists are set to launch negotiations at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers headquarters in Encino, with less than seven weeks left prior to the June 30 contract expiration.

The unions will hold an 11 a.m. news conference today at SAG’s Hollywood headquarters to discuss the negotiations.

“My impression is that the leaders did a lot of wait-and-see for the Writers Guild contract,” said SAG member Jack Logan. “I believe they are taking a moderate tone for two reasons –because they know the members don’t want to go through another strike and because of all the internal friction.”

Last year’s strike grew out of three key events — the election of SAG prexy William Daniels on a platform of taking a more aggressive approach to bargaining, advertisers’ demand to eliminate residuals for network TV ads and an economic boom that helped rank-and-file actors ride out a work stoppage.

Strike a longshot

With the WGA tentative deal now 10 days old, Hollywood has reached the conclusion that the once-feared SAG strike has become a longshot. Agents have been asking studio production execs what pics they want to start shooting in July and August.

“The horses are lining up at the starting gate,” said one tenpercenter, adding that he expects there will remain significant numbers of projects with enough heat to get greenlighted, despite the spending frenzy earlier this year that ate up much of the 2001 development funds.

The optimism has been fueled along these lines: The WGA settlement shows that the companies want to avoid a strike; the tentative deal sets some of the parameters for a SAG/AFTRA agreement; and SAG’s members are less inclined to support a strike amid a souring economy and the guild’s internal battles.

“I think the WGA deal has left us in a much better position,” Logan said.

SAG’s button-down approach to the negotiations so far has included:

  • No disclosure of the actual proposal to the AMPTP or anyone else.

  • Stressing the “streamlined” nature of the proposal with less than 30 individual areas up for negotiation.

  • Hinting that the key goal will be boosting wage minimums in order to get more money into the pockets of middle-class actors — hardly a divisive issue. (Other major points could be basic cable and Fox residuals, jurisdiction over the Internet and foreign shoots and diversity.)

  • Keeping the contract campaign for members limited to a handful of press releases and recaps of key issues such as wage compression and Internet jurisdiction.

  • Minimal planning to mobilize members. The first informational meeting for members is not even taking place until next weekend.

  • Repeated statements from SAG prexy William Daniels that “there is a deal to be made” and a declaration by SAG chief negotiator Brian Walton that a strike would only be a “last resort.” Daniels has blamed the companies and news media for fueling fear of a strike.

Blackout likely

All these trends point to SAG/AFTRA and the AMPTP imposing some kind of news blackout similar to what was used during WGA negotiations. Although such a step limits the pressure that actors can bring, the justification is that it keeps negotiators focused on solving the problem of making a deal rather than forcing them to justify positions to their constituents.

The SAG/AFTRA approach differs sharply from the aggressive campaign waged early last year, which saw a town hall meeting at SAG headquarters draw 700 members three weeks before the start of negotiations. SAG posted its entire proposal on its Web site on the day that negotiations started.

Some SAG insiders are upset over the guild’s seeming lack of preparation for activities surrounding the negotiations and contrast it with the WGA’s intensive yearlong campaign to prep members for the contract talks. Ongoing boardroom rifts are blamed for distracting SAG leaders from focusing on the guild’s key contract.

“A contract campaign gives you leverage at the bargaining table because it reminds the other side that you can shut them down,” a SAG staffer said. “The best we can do now is something haphazardly.”

Still, SAG is not lacking clout as it carries the implicit threat of rallying celebrity members, just as it did last year, if its leaders believe the AMPTP’s proposals are squeezing actors. In addition, its members staged hundreds of demonstrations last spring and summer during the strike, culminating in a boycott against consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.