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Actors, Studios Near Agreement on Contract

Hollywood: A deal is expected as early as today. A key shift involves pay for work on cable.

July 01, 2001|JAMES BATES and CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hollywood's unfolding labor drama was on the verge of ending late Saturday as studios and actors closed in on a new three-year deal that would quash strike threats that have consumed the industry for a year.

Weary negotiators recessed for the night about 9 p.m., letting their current contract expire at midnight. They will reconvene at 10 a.m. today.

Both sides said the adjournment wasn't a sign of impasse and that they were committed to reaching an agreement.

"We want to achieve a contract. We want to keep everyone employed," said Pamm Fair, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, one of the two actors unions.

Several sources late Saturday said an agreement could come as early as today.

"The planets are lining up," said one source involved in the talks.

"I would be shocked if it's not done" Sunday, said another. "We're very close."

A potential breakthrough involved revamping the way actors are paid when their work is shown on cable TV. Negotiators believed they found a way to put more money in actors' pockets but still let studios pay them the same percentage rate they do now, according to sources in the negotiations.

Other concessions that actors are expected to get include increased minimum payments for TV performers and a special bump for guest stars in shows, better residuals for Fox network programs and added payments in some cases when shows air on foreign stations.

Saturday night's talks were decidedly low key at the industry's Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers headquarters in Encino, even including one birthday celebration.

During a dinner break, some Screen Actors Guild officials threw a football in the courtyard. Earlier in the day, SAG President William Daniels left the talks to attend his 50th wedding anniversary celebration in Santa Barbara after giving SAG officials a pep talk.

For studios and actors, a new labor deal would accomplish something that as little as three months ago was thought near impossible--keeping Hollywood on the job. But odds of a strike dramatically eased May 4 when writers agreed to a new contract valued at $41 million.

Before that, the industry was staring at possible simultaneous strikes by writers and actors that would have darkened sound stages and could have devastated the Southern California economy. A study commissioned by outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan estimated a potential loss of 81,900 jobs and $6.9 billion in income for the Southland if the two groups walked out.

So seriously did studios take the strike threats that they ramped up productions to finish films before Saturday's expiration date. "Scary Movie 2," for example, was put on such a fast track that it was edited while being shot.

The situation also made studios gunshy about starting any new productions that carried even the slightest risk of being shut down by a strike. Stars as big as Jim Carrey postponed decisions on future projects pending a resolution. Blunting the strike fever was the softening economy, an inability of writers and actors to form a strong alliance they could leverage against studios and the continuing financial pain actors have been feeling from last year's six-month strike against advertisers.

In addition, the proliferation of staged, unscripted programs and game shows that don't require professional writers or actors sent shudders through talent guilds worried that they would significantly cut into job prospects.

Although the threat of a strike eased, deal making involving new projects has been put on ice until the talks resolve. That's because pulling the plug on projects is so expensive that studios aren't taking any chances until the ink dries. Studios have had contingency plans in place for a year in anticipation of back-to-back strikes.

The writers' deal in May was widely expected to serve as a template for a new actors contract, although union negotiators led by veteran bargainer Brian Walton insisted on calling the writers' deal a "steppingstone."

Affected by the latest talks are about 135,000 actors nationwide represented by SAG and its smaller sister union, AFTRA. . Talks started May 15, at first moving slowly, with actors setting as their primary goal boosting payments to journeymen, middle-class actors who make less than $70,000 a year.

The deal being discussed Saturday appears to do that. According to sources in the talks, both sides recognized that they could cut, and even possibly eliminate, the pension and health contributions that are sliced out of actors' checks when their work airs on cable. Companies would then make up the difference in the health and pension contributions. That would treat actor payments the same way as those for directors and writers, who don't have contributions deducted from their payments for cable airings.

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