In a move that ups the ante in the stalemate between actors and the studios over a new labor contract, the Screen Actors Guild has decided to pursue a strike authorization vote from its 120,000 members.
The decision came early Saturday morning after two days of mediation failed to bridge deep differences between the sides over how actors should be paid for work that is distributed over the Internet. Actors have been working without a contract since June 30.
Although a last-minute breakthrough is still possible, the actors and the studios now look to be inching closer to a costly showdown that would have seemed remote only a month ago.
Despite a rapidly deteriorating economy and the widespread acknowledgment that an actors' strike could cripple Hollywood's production industry, the actors union appears emboldened to put the studios on the defensive.
The coming weeks are a crucial period for the studios as deadlines to decide what big movies to make for 2010 are nearing and Hollywood readies for its all-important promotional event, the Academy Awards. A strike -- or the fear of one -- could wreak havoc on those plans.
But the bar is high. At issue is whether the actors guild, a notoriously fractious union, can persuade enough members to authorize its board to call a strike should negotiations fail. Strike referendums require 75% approval from those who cast ballots. Because returns typically run low, a minority of members can affect the outcome. However, the board has ultimate say about calling a strike, and recently elected moderates -- who now exert key influence -- would probably approve a strike only if there were an overwhelming mandate from members.
To make its case, the guild said it would now begin a "full-scale education campaign" in support of a strike referendum.
"Management continues to insist on terms we cannot possibly accept on behalf of our members," the union said in a statement. "We remain committed to avoiding a strike, but now more than ever, we cannot allow our employers to experiment with our careers."
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the negotiating arm of the major studios, countered: "SAG is the only major Hollywood union that has failed to negotiate a labor deal in 2008. Now SAG is bizarrely asking its members to bail out the failed negotiating strategy with a strike vote -- at a time of historic economic crisis."
The failure of the mediation effort was not a surprise. Few believed federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez would be able to bridge the enormous gap between the parties. Gonzalez also was unable to mediate a contract dispute last year between writers and the studios.
Among the chief stumbling blocks is the guild's demand for jurisdiction over all shows created for the Web, regardless of budget. The studios said that would constrain their ability to experiment in new media, and instead proposed limiting contracts only to shows above certain budget levels or when professional actors are hired.
Late Friday night, the actors guild signaled that it was prepared to accept the new media pay terms if studios granted an increase in the residuals actors earn from DVD sales, which studios have always rebuffed. Studios offered some tweaks to their previous final offer, but that was rejected in an 11-6 vote by the union's negotiating committee.
The union's 71-member national board previously gave the guild's negotiating committee authority to seek a strike vote if mediation failed.
"I think it was a big mistake for the negotiating committee to terminate the mediation after only two days," said Ned Vaughn, spokesman for the "Unite for Strength" group of actors who have been critical of the union's leadership. "These difficult times require that we exhaust every opportunity to reach an agreement."
In 2000, actors staged a six-month walkout over a commercials contract. If the guild strikes this time, it probably won't be until early next year. A strike referendum takes 30 to 40 days and would probably not occur until after the guild conducted an aggressive campaign to muster support.
Guild leaders are expected to time any walkout to disrupt the Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards -- in January and February, respectively -- and studio plans to ramp up production on movies scheduled for release in 2010.
Although union members typically grant strike authorizations to give their leaders leverage in bargaining, securing enough votes could be difficult given the sickly economy and strike fatigue after a 100-day walkout earlier this year by the Writers Guild of America.