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Diplaying a rare solidarity, leaders of the oft-fractious Screen Actors Guild has launched a groundbreaking change in rules for members working overseas.

“While travel is a part of doing business in a global economy, SAG members rightly expect all the protections of our union contracts to follow us when we work out of the country,” declared SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert at a news conference for Global Rule One at national headquarters in Hollywood. “It starts today. There’s no traveling without a SAG contract anywhere in this world.”

High-profile members Tom Bosley, Tony Danza, Frances Fisher, Elliott Gould, Ed Harris, David Keith, Kent McCord, Eriq La Salle and Kevin Spacey appeared along with leaders of the Directors Guild, Writers Guild and AFTRA, with each org issuing a statement of support. Spacey, a key early supporter of the policy, noted the rule dates back to SAG’s founding.

“Although the baby was born in 1933, we’re just smacking it today for the first time,” Spacey said. “We expect the studios to honor this or they simply won’t be able to hire us.”

The impact of strict enforcement goes beyond the potential for SAG actors to opt out of non-signatory shoots. SAG estimates producers on foreign shoots face average hikes of 2% to 3% in overall costs by hiring SAG members, according to Global Rule One task force co-chair Tom Bower.

But Nick Counter, prexy of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, asserted SAG’s policy would cut employment opportunities for thesps.

Counter also said SAG’s estimate of Rule One’s impact is far too low, adding that enforcement would boost a project’s budget for actors by 20% in Canada. “That’s enough for something on the cusp not to be green-lit,” he added.

SAG estimates 1,200 to 1,500 members regularly work abroad and that 60 features and 160 TV projects released domestically last year were shot at foreign locations without SAG contracts. It has remained undeterred by protests by studios and nets that the guild is illegally expanding its jurisdiction into foreign locations after its national board unanimously voted last fall to discipline members who work outside the U.S. for non-signatory producers — a rule that not enforced previously.

Counter said Wednesday he remains hopeful SAG and the AMPTP can find a middle ground. “We’re still at the talking stage and short of the litigation stage,” said Counter, who has issued a “cease and desist” demand to SAG and told agents not to cooperate.

SAG CEO Bob Pisano has responded to the AMPTP’s moves by threatening litigation and said Wednesday, “No one should have any doubt about our resolve,” he added.

Gilbert predicted a major impact of SAG’s crackdown would come in TV movies, which she termed “my bread-and-butter.” Pisano also said the policy would apply to commercials and noted that more ads have been shot on foreign turf since SAG’s six-month strike against the ad industry in 2000.

Pisano said he expects Hollywood agents to support the initiative as part of their “fiduciary duty” to clients despite the absence of SAG’s master franchise agreement for talent agents over the past two weeks. But the Assn. of Talent Agents has been non-committal, citing the “uncertainty” created by last month’s rejection by SAG members of a revamp of the master franchise pact.

“My agents are going to work at getting their clients work,” said ATA exec director Karen Stuart in response.

SAG leaders have cited the massive migration of film and TV production to offshore locations in the last 15 years. That has led to a five-year loss of $23 million in contributions to the SAG pension and health plan and tightened eligibility requirements for insurance.

SAG reps met earlier this year in Toronto with acting union counterparts from Australia, Canada and New Zealand to work out details such as dual members, pension and health contributions and jurisdiction. The Guild has skedded another such confab for next month in London.

The SAG initiative was denounced two weeks ago by Canadian producers and blasted this week by the Screen Producers Assn. of Australia. The local actors guild — the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance — also opposes SAG’s policy and New South Wales Premier Bob Carr has written to Gilbert, warning the guild’s contract conditions may run afoul of local industrial laws.

He asserted SAG’s restrictions on Australian actors who are SAG members working in local films would “curtail the industry” in his state, which is Oz’s largest film production center.

The Premier, who is also Arts Minister, asked for an exemption for Aussie actors who have agreed to work in small-budget or publicly funded films that are intended primarily for Australian audiences. Carr says SAG’s policy would “devastate local productions which are often unable to pay inflated U.S. salaries” and would “price the Australian film industry out of business.”

MEAA director Simon Whipp said it isn’t clear whether Australian productions such as the currently lensing “Ned Kelly” would by affected by SAG’s action. The first production from WTA, the Oz arm of Universal’s Working Title, “Kelly” stars Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Griffiths and Geoffrey Rush, and is directed by Gregor Jordan.

Whipp said the ruling would force producers to increase the minimum daily rates for actors four-fold and to pay residuals amounting to 3.6% of TV and video sales.

(Don Groves in Sydney contributed to this report.)