Is it a question of changing policy, or simply saber-rattling?
On Tuesday, News Corp. said it would not rule out switching its current TV series from SAG to AFTRA contracts. SAG immediately blasted back, saying the company was using illegal “scare tactics.”
While the drama is unending in SAG negotiations, the plot twists are arriving ever more quickly these days — underlining the fact that emotions are running high as Hollywood rethinks some longstanding ways of doing business with the guilds.
Fox announced at midday it was exploring a shift of existing series from SAG to AFTRA but retracted that statement a few hours later after both unions blasted the move.
Citing the months-long stalemate between SAG and the majors, 20th confirmed that it wants its spring pilots with AFTRA rather than SAG if possible. That development had been expected as top brass at studios and nets have grown increasingly unnerved by SAG’s hardline stance (Daily Variety, Nov. 26).
“With all the uncertainty surrounding the stalled negotiations with SAG, 20th Century Fox Television is considering shooting its spring pilots under the AFTRA agreement,” a spokesman said.
The spokesman also said that 20th Century Fox TV was “exploring every option,” including transitioning shows from SAG to AFTRA. But the statement was altered a few hours later to say “Fox is only exploring producing shows under AFTRA for the spring pilot season, that’s it. We are not looking to alter current productions.”
By then, both labor unions had poured cold water on the idea. SAG blasted Fox and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, while AFTRA said a program already established under one union cannot be “transferred” to another union, adding that it would never participate in such a move.
“We should not be surprised by the timing of this new AMPTP attack — as usual, they are attempting to use scare tactics to influence the member vote in the upcoming strike authorization referendum,” SAG said. “Any effort by Twentieth Century Fox Television to shift existing programs from SAG to AFTRA would violate federal law and AFL-CIO rules, and the Screen Actors Guild will take any and all necessary and appropriate action to ensure the right of its members to be represented by the guild.”
For its part, AFTRA asserted that a program already established under one union cannot be “converted” or “transferred” to another, adding that it’s barred from doing so under the rules of the AFL-CIO and the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.
“In addition, even if there were no such restrictions under the rules of our parent organizations, it wouldn’t matter,” AFTRA said. “Simply stated, AFTRA would never participate in such a practice. Fox Labor Relations is very well aware of this.”
Warner Bros. TV, which produces “Cold Case” and “Two and a Half Men” under SAG contracts, issued a statement similar to 20th’s. “In response to the uncertainties created by a potential SAG strike, WBTV is also considering all of its options, including those involving digital productions done under AFTRA agreements.”
And the AMPTP chimed in with a potshot at the guild: “SAG’s overheated statement regarding the organization of pilots cannot obscure the fact that, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis of the past 80 years, SAG is persisting with a failed negotiating strategy that has already cost SAG members nearly $40 million and will cost them potentially hundreds of millions of dollars more during a strike.”
SAG’s planning to send out strike authorization ballots on Jan. 2 and will announce the results on Jan. 23, with 75% approval by those voting required in order to give SAG leaders the option to strike.
So going with AFTRA represents a strike-proof insurance policy for nets and studios — even if SAG strikes, thesps who belong to both SAG and AFTRA would be legally obligated to work on shows produced under an AFTRA contract. AFTRA members ratified a three-year primetime pact in July despite bitter opposition from SAG.
SAG and AFTRA share jurisdiction over primetime series, with the longstanding agreement that SAG covers shows shot on film, while AFTRA covers shows shot on video such as multicamera sitcoms, soaps, daytime and latenight talkshows. But the unions haven’t sorted out which covers primetime shot in high-definition digital formats, and that’s led to AFTRA expanding its jurisdiction by signing pilots.
Fox, regarded as being among the most hawkish of the congloms toward unions, could have conceivably decided to change the format of its studio’s key SAG series (“24,” “My Name Is Earl,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Bones”) from film to digital — thus paving the way for signing those shows with AFTRA. In addition to reducing SAG’s jurisdictional footprint, such a shift would likely represent a significant cost savings.
But an AFTRA rep said the union would not sanction such a move.
Twentieth has already opted for AFTRA deals on two upcoming pilots — Fox comedy “Boldly Going Nowhere” and the ABC laffer “Better Off Ted.” AFTRA’s frosh shows this season include CBS sitcom “Gary Unmarried” and CW’s “90210.”
In addition to 20th, ABC Studios and CBS Paramount Network TV have been steering new projects to AFTRA. Once the union designation is made during initial casting, a show cannot switch its affiliation unless its production format changes.
For the past three decades, Hollywood has usually opted for SAG deals on scripted primetime fare, with SAG and AFTRA master contracts containing identical terms because the two unions had jointly negotiated the contract. But after years of jurisdictional battles, AFTRA split in March from SAG for this round of negotiations. As a result, AFTRA’s deal contains more generous terms than SAG’s expired contract along with new-media residuals for the first time.
Fox’s move came a day after SAG’s strike authorization had been blasted on two fronts — a letter from 130 high-profile members including George Clooney and Tom Hanks and at a raucous New York townhall meeting.
SAG remained resolute by sending a message to members that noted the authorization has received support from more than 1,500 members over three days who have signed a solidarity statement. The missive also stressed that SAG leaders are addressing the concerns of “rank and file” members as opposed to the concerns of stars.
“We want to hear about your concerns, too, so please send us your messages of support for a yes vote as well as your questions,” SAG said. “The working actor’s perspective is important to our success, so tell us what concerns you may have about the current offer — the new-media template, the attack on force majeure provisions, the reduction on clip consent rights or other issues of interest.”
In an earlier message to board members, national exec director Doug Allen said the stars who signed the letter are ignorant about the strike issues, and he encouraged members to attend tonight’s townhall meeting at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel.
“Unfortunately, the vast majority of those who signed on have not attended informational meetings and have not taken the opportunity to learn the facts directly from Screen Actors Guild,” Allen said. “Clearly, the AMPTP’s rhetoric has had the desired effect.”
SAG’s last contract talks with the AMPTP took place a month ago under supervision of a federal mediator and cratered after two days, with wide gaps remaining between the two sides, particularly over new media.