Thesps beat scribes to the table

Minimums, health care on agenda

A correction was made to this article on Jan. 29, 2004.

SAG and AFTRA have beaten the WGA to the negotiating table.

The actors unions will begin negotiations with studios and nets on Tuesday morning at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The development had been expected even though the June 30 expiration of the SAG-AFTRA film-TV contract is two months later than the WGA’s contract expiration on May 2. Leaders of SAG and AFTRA told studios and nets on Jan. 18 that they were ready to start bargaining immediately, signaling that the AMPTP would be given the power to dictate the scheduling of negotiations.

That’s a distinct shift from the last round of negotiations in 2001 when SAG and AFTRA held off on starting talks until after the WGA reached a deal, three days after contract expiration. That strategy was employed to maximize the leverage from a possible work stoppage — a threat taken so seriously that stockpiling and production speed-ups dominated Hollywood in the first half of 2001.

The AMPTP and the unions had no comment Tuesday other than confirming the start of talks. But studios and nets, who use the AMPTP as their negotiating arm, have wanted to launch talks first with the actors for several reasons:

  • SAG and AFTRA are perceived as being more willing to reach a deal, given that they’ve held off on publicizing any of their demands and thus avoided riling up their 140,000 members.

  • The possibility of an actors strike, no matter how far-fetched, is far more threatening to studios and nets than a writers strike, since actors would be able to shut down the business immediately.

  • Reaching a deal with SAG and AFTRA will take away the leverage of the WGA, which is perceived as being more willing to go to the mat. The writers have spelled out key demands including hiking DVD residuals, boosting producer health care contributions and expanding jurisdiction over reality TV and animation.

As for SAG and AFTRA’s contract proposal, attendees at the Jan. 18 joint board meeting said it calls for a broad range of increases in minimums and a boost in health care contributions. The actor unions have also indicated they may attempt to match the expiration date of the film-TV contract with the expiration of AFTRA’s network code contract, which covers broadcasters and expires Nov. 15, 2005.

It’s uncertain whether the WGA negotiations could start before the SAG-AFTRA talks are concluded.

The latest development caps a messy month for the WGA West. The WGA West board elevated Charles Holland from VP to the presidency Jan. 6 after Victoria Riskin stepped down after an investigator found her active membership had lapsed when she ran for office; Holland was then accused of misrepresenting his background, leading to a 10-6 endorsement by the WGA West board; and the Guild is facing a Dept. of Labor probe into how it conducted the Riskin election.

If SAG reaches a deal first, the WGA will be in a tough spot due to lingering embarrassment over its leaders, high expectations among members for an improved contract, a solid wall of resistance on the DVD issue from studios and no leverage from SAG should the WGA talks break down.

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