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Actors set to talk

SAG-AFTRA to meet Monday with producers

HOLLYWOOD — The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists have set next Monday as the launch for potentially contentious film and TV contract negotiations with studios and networks.

The performers unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers made a brief joint announcement Tuesday, disclosing the start date at AMPTP headquarters in Encino, and a news blackout.

SAG and AFTRA’s contract expires June 30, and the unions face a daunting challenge on the hot-button issue of a boost in DVD residuals. SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert has proclaimed the residual structure unfair, and said the time has come for actors to be “more fairly included in the studios’ explosive growth and success.”

It’s unlikely SAG’s leadership would opt for a strike next summer over DVD, despite the soaring revenues generated by the discs. SAG’s board remains in control of Gilbert’s allies, who adhere to a less confrontational course, though those forces lost ground in the most recent election to those advocating a more assertive bargaining stance.

Studios have insisted they won’t budge on changing the 20-year-old homevideo formula, which allows exclusion of 80% of wholesale revenues from residual calculations. Execs contend the soaring costs of filmmaking make it essential to rely on ancillary revenues such as DVD.

The DGA and WGA achieved no progress on DVD in negotiations this fall, and opted instead for increases of about $60 million each in three-year deals, with about two-thirds of that gain coming in health plan contributions from employers. Additionally, AFTRA recently negotiated a three-year deal on its network code contract (for TV work outside primetime) that includes $18 million more for its health fund.

Slice ‘n’ dice

The showbiz unions’ health and retirement funds have been cutting benefits and tightening eligibility in recent years. AFTRA’s retirement plan recently cut the benefit accrual rate to 1.5% of earnings from the previous 2%; the plan had reduced that rate in June 2003 from 3% to 2%.

SAG and AFTRA are operating under a one-year deal — negotiated last February — that includes a 0.5% hike in contributions to both unions’ health plans. The unions’ strategy was to bolster the plans and then seek residual increases this fall.

Prior to its contract talks, the WGA went public with a campaign that blasted what it labeled as abnormally low DVD payouts amid the booming market for the discs. One Guild group mailed out nickels to highlight the average writer’s residual on a $15 DVD.

The writers launched negotiations in April, then walked away from the table in June without a deal, opting to work without a contract in hopes the DGA and SAG could break through on DVD.

No waiting

But after the DGA declared in September it had reached a deal, the directors also noted it was the “wrong time” to seek higher DVD residuals, and warned that even a long strike might not be enough to break the resolve of the studios. The WGA then decided in mid-October not to wait for SAG, and reached a deal in two days.

Gilbert will head SAG’s delegation, with national exec director Bob Pisano as lead negotiator. AFTRA prexy John Connolly will lead the AFTRA delegation, with national exec director Greg Hessinger as lead negotiator.

The AMPTP bargaining team will be headed by longtime president Nick Counter.

SAG has about 98,000 members, AFTRA has 80,000; about 40,000 performers are in both.

SAG hasn’t engaged in any rabble-rousing to prep its members for a possible strike. But its leaders have been engaged in a nasty fight over a lawsuit calling for the ouster of Pisano as chief negotiator.

SAG recently asked to be named a co-defendant in the conflict-of-interest suit brought against the CEO by SAG members Scott Wilson and Tom Bower over Pisano’s position as an advisory board member of pay TV outfit Cinema Entertainment Group and his seat on the board of DVD rental outfit Netflix. In the most recent vote, 58% of the SAG board backed Pisano.

The next hearing in the case is set for Dec. 20 before U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner.

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