Contract talks between film and TV studios and actors guilds accelerated Monday as the top union official for Hollywood's blue-collar work force turned up the heat on both sides, suggesting that the industry has suffered a "dramatic slowdown" in production in the last month because of uncertainty over a new deal.
Separately, the Screen Actors Guild moved to shore up its executive ranks with the naming of former senior Walt Disney Co. corporate officer John F. Cooke as its chief executive. Hired after a four-month search, Cooke succeeds the retired executive director Ken Orsatti as the guild's top staff official.
The comments about the production slowdown by Thomas Short, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, mark the first time he has weighed in on the actors talks since negotiations started last month toward a new contract to replace one expiring Saturday.
Short's comments, aimed at putting pressure on both sides, are similar to ones he made when trying to pressure studios and writers before they reached agreement on a new contract last month.
Short said in an interview that a reluctance by producers to give the go-ahead to new projects until they are certain actors won't strike has been felt sharply by members.
According to Short, employment in the last month is off by as much as 50% among costumers, makeup artists and hairdressers, 40% by set artists and about 30% among set painters. Short said he is concerned that if production continues to slow, some members will not get enough work to continue to qualify for health and pension benefits.
Short's comments mark the first time a top union official has provided specific numbers on the effect on workers. IATSE represents about 50,000 skilled workers in TV and film in Los Angeles, including grips, camera operators, sound technicians, makeup artists, electricians and other professions.
Actors and studios continue to downplay chances of a strike. Although neither side would comment on progress of the talks, citing a self-imposed news blackout, sources on both sides remain optimistic a new deal can be worked out by the contract expiration date or shortly after.
Last week, the studios presented SAG and its sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, with a so-called comprehensive proposal. The guilds studied the proposal and met Sunday afternoon with studio representatives to present their counterproposal. Working through the weekend had been expected, but nonetheless marks a clear acceleration of talks that, to date, had been moving relatively slowly.
"We're getting close," said a source involved in the talks. "Problems remain. There are emotional issues and financial issues. But, none of them are impossible. The parties are not that far apart."
Some say a deal could come by the time the contract expires Saturday at midnight, but others said they would not be surprised if talks extend into early next week.
"If it stays rational, there should be a deal," one source said.
Money issues remain at the heart of the talks, especially residual payments actors receive when their work is rerun on cable TV channels. Actors, who now split among themselves 6% of the license fee for shows sold to cable channels, have been asking for 7.5%. That is a number studios are unlikely to grant because they would then be under pressure to boost percentages given to writers and directors.
As for Cooke, the executive was hired from an initial group of 200 executives, later narrowed to nine, said William Simon, partner with the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.
Cooke left Disney in early 2000 to become an executive vice president at the J. Paul Getty Trust.
Cooke spent 15 years at Disney. As executive vice president for corporate affairs, he oversaw such areas as government relations. Before that, he ran the Disney Channel. Cooke formerly was an executive with the cable television operations at Times Mirror Co., former parent of The Times.
Cooke in recent years has been a top Democratic Party fund-raiser in Hollywood, and is close to former Vice President Al Gore.
Cooke's hiring is not expected to affect contract negotiations, since his start date has yet to be determined. He said he will attend some sessions as an observer.
Cooke said that he plans to review SAG's organization, long criticized as being too bloated, and address such issues for actors as new technologies, rocky relations with agents and runaway production to foreign countries. Cooke also said he is optimistic that SAG's chronic infighting will eventually end.
SAG President William Daniels said Cooke's selection was unanimous among the union's search committee.