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Advertisers, Actors Likely to Strike Out, End in a Tie

September 15, 2000|JAMES BATES

Despite 20 of the most acrimonious weeks in the history of Hollywood labor relations, there's a deal to be made between striking actors and the advertising industry.

It's called the status quo, or at least something close to it.

With advertisers eager to end the acrimony, and with union leaders especially under the gun, look for both sides to eventually drop their respective demands for a wholesale restructuring in the way actors are paid when they appear in commercials. In declaring a draw, with maybe a financial sweetener thrown in for the actors, both sides would have a face-saving way out.

Actors would be able to boast that they fought off an ominous "rollback" challenge that would have forced them to take a flat fee in lieu of being paid each time an ad runs on a network. Advertisers would be able to claim actors failed to get residuals when commercials run on cable TV. Both sides can agree to some kind of nebulous joint study of various hot-button issues, like how actors will be paid when commercials run over the Internet.

The result: a tie that accomplishes something they could have gotten without a strike.

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This scenario isn't just idle speculation. It's become the conventional wisdom of other entertainment labor officials and strike observers on the sidelines as a settlement finally seems in the air.

To be sure, strike negotiations could all implode. But that's not likely. Ad industry representatives today will meet again for the third straight day in New York with the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a clear sign of a thaw.

Advertisers clearly misjudged SAG, believing that the union would have folded by now. They can't get stars or veteran actors for their commercials to introduce new products, and SAG has become a thorn in the side of major advertisers like General Motors and AT&T.

As for SAG, its leaders are clearly under pressure, and not just from the advertisers. Its members, many of whom barely make a living from acting, are hurting at the expense of nonunion actors getting commercial jobs.

Other unions representing the myriad of Hollywood workers are torn about the strike, and have been applying subtle pressure behind the scenes. While they firmly back the actors out of solidarity, those unions also are concerned that their own members are losing work. To date, the strike has cost Los Angeles an estimated $100 million directly, millions more if you throw in the indirect costs to caterers, dry cleaners and myriad businesses.

Those Hollywood unions are even more worried that the strike has exacerbated the already critical problem of runaway production to foreign countries. Advertisers are moving work to cheaper areas such as Toronto. Unions worry that advertisers will like it so much they may never come back.

Actors also are looking at difficult negotiations next year with the TV and film industry, and don't want to go into them with a financially weakened union that a longer strike assures. If that weren't enough, SAG is facing yet another distraction because talent agents, who must abide by SAG rules, are pressuring the union to loosen by next month the rules under which agents operate.

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More important, a settlement that can be sold to actors also would allow the union to preserve its two biggest accomplishments: holding the notoriously fractious union together during the strike, and getting a good number of top stars, who usually give SAG activists the respect they might give extras on a set, to take up the cause.

SAG will need that kind of unity and star power when it goes to the table next year.

For both sides, ample lessons should be learned. Advertisers, as well as the film and TV industry as a whole, should get the message that labor unrest will continue until they finally modernize agreements to share some of the bounty caused by the boom in cable and foreign television.

Next year's negotiations with actors and writers that could shut Hollywood down involve the same issues over payments for shows that appear on cable or in foreign markets. Both sides have punted on the issue for too long. A take-it-or-leave-it approach will only exacerbate the troubles.

For SAG's leaders, the lessons are simple. If you strike, make sure you are prepared and have an end game.

Other union officials have complained for weeks that SAG's tough talk leading up to the strike May 1 telegraphed the union's punches. Better to approach in a stealth-like way and be adequately prepared.

There's no underestimating the value of top stars to the cause. Lining them up was too slow in coming. Only now the strike has gotten stars such as Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey and Paul Newman to actively take up the cause and put actors like Tom Selleck and Richard Dreyfuss on the stump, giving the strike the kind of TV exposure SAG wants.

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