Hopes for a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations between Hollywood studios and the Screen Actors Guild were dashed Tuesday when contract talks ended on a bitter note, fueling anxiety over the prospect of another strike.
After three weeks of talks, studios walked away from the table, saying that negotiations were "thrust into reverse" by what they called "unreasonable demands."
SAG accused the studios of turning their backs on the guild to focus on contract talks with the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
"It's deeply troubling because we said we wanted to stay in the room and make a deal and our pleas were ignored," SAG President Alan Rosenberg said Tuesday night.
Actors are considering the studios' offer to resume talks May 28, about a month before their contract expires.
Although they made some headway in negotiations, the parties could not bridge significant differences over how much money actors would receive from shows streamed online, the types of Web programs that would be covered under the contract and the use of clips on the Internet without actors' consent. Studios also balked at SAG's demands for higher pay for guest stars and other performers and for improved DVD residuals.
Studios said SAG resisted the framework of deals already negotiated with directors and writers. Union leaders agreed to some aspects of those agreements but said they were seeking improvements to better reflect the needs of middle-class actors.
Despite pleas by SAG leaders to continue talking, the studios insisted on turning their attention to AFTRA, which begins talks today on a prime-time TV contract. AFTRA has twice postponed negotiations.
The studios want to seal a quick deal with AFTRA so that they can pressure SAG to accept similar terms in its film and TV contract. They used a similar strategy after a standoff with the Writers Guild of America, swiftly settling on a pact with directors that became the basis for the contract that ended the writers strike.
The studios are counting on smoother talks with AFTRA, given that that union recently ratified a contract for daytime TV shows that was modeled on the recent writers pact.
After a year of feuding, AFTRA -- which shares 44,000 members with SAG -- recently broke off its longtime joint bargaining agreement with the bigger union.
SAG represents 120,000 movie, TV and commercial actors and accounts for the majority of earnings among both unions' performers. AFTRA's contract spans all forms of TV, including soap operas, reality shows and cable programs.
Although AFTRA's contract covers actors on only a few prime-time shows, the union hopes to sign up more high-profile series. Traditionally, SAG's contract has covered shows shot on film, and AFTRA has had jurisdiction over those produced on videotape. But those lines have blurred as more shows are shot digitally, sparking a turf war.
"We're primed and ready to go," AFTRA President Roberta Reardon said Tuesday. "We're very realistic about what's on the table, what's in the business, what we're after and how we're going to get it."
Like SAG, AFTRA wants better pay for working actors whose incomes have been squeezed in recent years, Reardon said, and will push for actors' consent for the use of Web clips, among other things.
Though the contract talks give AFTRA a chance to emerge from SAG's shadow, they could create a potential public relations problem if AFTRA accepts terms that undercut SAG's goals. Critics in SAG have complained openly in the last year that AFTRA's cable TV contracts sell actors short. AFTRA contends that its deals are fair and have helped expand union jobs.
"I understand there are people who are opposed to what AFTRA is doing," Reardon said. "But we're doing what's best for our members."
For their part, SAG leaders could now push for a strike authorization vote by their members, a common bargaining tactic to gain leverage. That, however, could be risky because many working actors have little appetite for a strike.
Labor negotiations often conclude at the eleventh hour. "If you're not close to a deadline, you don't get a settlement," said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at UCLA.