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Cliffhanger

A SAG strike would likely bring far more pain than benefit. Both sides should get down to business.

June 30, 2008

The contract between Hollywood studios and the largest actors union, the Screen Actors Guild, expires at midnight, but don't hold your breath for a last-minute deal. Rather than bargaining feverishly to end an impasse that has already idled thousands of workers, negotiators have been biding their time until July 8. That's when the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, finishes voting on the tentative contract its board overwhelmingly approved this month. SAG's leaders are focused on persuading AFTRA to reject the contract, arguing that it would enable actors to extract better terms from the studios.

That's the hypothesis, at least, but it seems wildly optimistic. The AFTRA deal follows the pattern set by this year's contracts between the studios and the directors' and writers' guilds. Supporters say its core financial provisions are the best that could be expected in the current economy. It falls short mainly in comparison to the promises SAG leaders made to the rank and file, such as obtaining higher residuals on DVDs and requiring residual payments for any video reused online. Even if they managed to kill the AFTRA agreement, SAG's leaders would still have to persuade the studios to make concessions that the writers couldn't win after a 100-day strike -- a hiatus that cost many writers more in lost pay than they gained from the eventual deal. No matter how much leverage it has on July 9, SAG is unlikely to break the pattern established by the previous deals without putting everyone who works in and around the industry through considerably more pain.

Yet SAG isn't the only party that needs to move to end the impasse. The guild's lead negotiator complained last week that the studios' proposal was worth millions of dollars less than the deal they extended to AFTRA. Clearly, the studios weren't putting their best offer on the table despite the lateness of the hour. More important, they need to acknowledge that SAG's demands grow out of legitimate complaints about the way studios have treated the talent unions. The residuals for home video, which started low when the technologies were new and were never increased, make SAG suspect the studios' willingness to share any new revenue stream fairly. The union is understandably nervous too that the studios will try to shortchange its members as they do more online. And the squeeze felt by middle-class actors reflects the increasing percentage of film and TV budgets that the studios pay to stars.

Still, the guild's negotiations have to accept, as actor George Clooney put it, the "fundamental facts" of the bargaining situation today. That means focusing on the unique needs of actors, rather than seeking changes that would ripple back through the deals already struck. There's plenty for the two sides to negotiate on that front, including new rules for excerpts and payments during work stoppages. There's just not a lot of time.

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