Now that the board of the main actors union has asked members to approve a hard-fought contract with the studios, several factions in the 10-month drama agree that it's time to set aside their differences, vote for the contract, and get to work making movies and TV shows.
But many members of the Screen Actors Guild aren't on board. They want the contract to be turned down and negotiations to continue.
James McAuley, a 43-year-old actor who lives in West Los Angeles, said he won't vote for the contract and doesn't expect it to pass.
"For some actors, work is just a hobby," McAuley said last week. "If this contract is approved, it will be a hobby for a lot more."
On April 19, the SAG board approved a two-year contract with producers and it's now urging members to OK the proposed deal. Votes will be mailed early May and tabulated by the end of the month.
While the proposed contract could be seen as a setback because the actors lost 10 months of higher pay they'd have pocketed if they'd accepted an offer last year, it also positions them for a future battle over a key point of contention: residuals for new media Internet and mobile platforms.
In the midst of a recession marked by layoffs and budget cuts, producers see the long-awaited agreement as a breakthrough that despite the opposition of a large block of hard-line SAG members will put actors back to work and restart production halted due to fears of a strike.
"I think it makes sense," Mike Medavoy, a producer and chairman of Phoenix Pictures in Culver City, said of the SAG board's approval. "Unfortunately too much time has been lost. It's pretty clear that everybody just ought to go back to work."
Jesse Heistand, a spokesman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major Hollywood studios and television networks, declined to comment beyond the generic statement posted on the group's Web site after the SAG board's action.
"With this agreement in place," the statement said, "our entire industry can work together."
Ned Vaughn, a member of the SAG board who voted for the agreement, said he expected it to be ratified by a majority of the union's 120,000 members.
"This contract provides valuable increases in pay and benefits at a time when most unions are taking cuts and millions of Americans are losing their jobs," Vaughn said. "It will give a big boost for production and create more work for actors."
The proposal has been a long time coming. The union's contract expired June 30 after SAG's rejection of what the studios called their final offer. That offer was similar to agreements that producers had reached with other Hollywood unions including the smaller American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the deal last year that ended a 14-week Writers Guild of America strike. However, not much progress was made on the demands for residuals from new media.
The leadership of SAG held out for better terms and threatened to launch another industrywide strike. No strike vote was taken, and a group of Hollywood's biggest names, including Tom Hanks and George Clooney, called for a moderate approach.
SAG Executive Director Doug Allen, considered a hard-liner, was ousted from his role when the moderate faction took control of the 71-member national board.
But the SAG board's recent approval of the studios' proposed contract came with just a narrow margin: 53 percent. That highlights the uncertainty of passage.
The contract terms close to those offered last June call for an immediate 3.5 percent increase, including 3 percent in wages, and a half-percent in health and pension contributions, followed by another 3.5 percent increase in wages next year. But the proposed contract is not retroactive.
"In some ways it's a worse deal than they'd have gotten before," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer and close observer of the Hollywood labor scene. The loss of nearly a year's worth of higher wages was "a very costly misadventure on the part of the hard-liners."
But by agreeing to a two-year contract, Handel said the union will be in a better bargaining position in June 2011 because negotiations will be aligned with those of several other unions.
"This will synchronize SAG with the other actors union, the writers guild and the directors guild," Handel said. "They will be in a position to threaten to join a strike to get what they want."
And above all, what they want is a bigger stake in new media such as Internet productions and streaming video.
Scott Wilson has spent the better part of three months waving picket signs in front of the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of the Screen Actors Guild on Miracle Mile, urging the union to hold out for better new-media residuals. The 67-year-old actor, who has appeared in 70 films, isn't happy with the proposed contract.
"This would mark the end of acting as a profession. You may as well go back home and be in community theater," Wilson said.
While most actors currently derive a large portion of their incomes Wilson said as much as 66 percent in residuals from television reruns, most of that money will gradually disappear as streaming Internet reruns replace TV. And while the tentative contract does offer some financial compensation for new media, hard-liners argue, it isn't nearly enough to make up the difference for what they could lose as television reruns disappear.
"This would make it impossible for most actors to earn a living," Wilson said of the tentative new contract.
Supporters of the proposed contract point out that it includes provisions allowing SAG to regularly examine the studios' books showing how much income they derive from new media. While public access to movies and TV on the Internet "is obviously growing," Vaughn said, "actors depend almost entirely on traditional TV and movies to make their livings. This contract improves that foundation and also gives us essential tools to help shape our future."
By retaining its ability to negotiate jointly with other unions in 2011, he said, SAG "can take on this growing issue from a position of maximum strength."
The union, Vaughn said, plans to begin distributing ballots to its full membership by mail the first week of May and hopes for a complete tabulation before the end of the month.
Handel predicts a close, but hard-fought, ratification.
"It will be approved," he said, "but there's going to be a bitter fight."
Producers are generally being tight-lipped regarding the process. One major barometer of the film industry on-site movie production in Los Angeles hit a record low in this year's first quarter, falling 56 percent from 2008. As a result, most movie producers are virtually holding their breath hoping not to jinx the SAG deal.
"I think it will get everybody off the feeling that they're on pins and needles about a strike," Medavoy said.
Wilson, on the other hand, has a different goal; to keep waving his sign until the last vote is counted.
"What I hope to do," he said, "is inform the membership about what this proposal means. No one wants a strike what we want is to just earn a living."
Quiet on the Set
Key dates in the contract negotiations between the Screen Actors Guild and the
- June 30, 2008 SAG's contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires after negotiations break down. The guild's executive director and chief negotiator, Doug Allen, threatens an industrywide strike. The dispute centers on actors' demands for residual payments when their performances are rerun on new media.
- Jan. 26 A moderate faction gains control of the guild's board and fires Allen, replacing him with a new negotiating team.
- April 17 Negotiators reach a tentative agreement on a two-year contract that is similar to the one rejected in June.
- April 19 The board approves the tentative agreement by a slim margin of 53 percent, recommending ratification by the union's full membership.
- Early May Ballots will go out to SAG's 120,000 members with results expected by May 31. If ratified, the contract takes effect. If not, negotiations may resume.
- June 30, 2011 The proposed contract would expire at the same time as other Hollywood union pacts, giving labor strength in numbers to renew demands on new-media residuals.
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