So are they talking or aren't they?

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SAG and the studios, locked in a stalemate and having held just one sidebar meeting since the guild contract ran out nearly a month ago, are taking their disconnect to new heights.

Late Sunday, SAG's chief negotiator Doug Allen sent members a missive stating talks have continued within "small group meetings and exchanges with the employers, their AMPTP representatives and a core group of leaders in both organizations."

He essentially told members to ignore any suggestions they might read that there is "dead silence between our sides," Allen said. "Progress doesn't have to occur directly across the table. Discussions through alternative channels are ongoing as we work toward a fair deal for actors as soon as possible."

The AMPTP, however, denied any back-channel talks have taken place. The studios' bargaining arm Monday refuted SAG's claims that informal talks are being held.

"No meetings, formal or informal, regarding these negotiations have taken place since the sidebar SAG requested on July 16, and no meetings are pending," the group added.

Allen was traveling and could not be reached for comment on the AMPTP's response.

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers did say that it would be open to overtures from SAG — as long as the talks involved tweaks, rather than counterproposals, to the studios' "final offer."

"The AMPTP is always interested in exploring ways to reach an agreement, and if SAG has an approach that's consistent with the parameters of our June 30 final offer, then we are open to hearing that," the AMPTP said. "SAG's negotiators have not discussed with us any plan to reach an agreement, and the only meeting the parties are attempting to schedule is one to resolve some outstanding grievance claims."

It's possible that there has been communication between the sides but not real bargaining, one L.A. entertainment attorney suggested.

"I would suspect that there have been informal talks, in the course of business," agreed fellow labor lawyer Scott Witlin of Akin Gump in Los Angeles. "They're not negotiations, not sidebars, not subcommittees, but people meeting because they have a reason to meet. This comes up because everybody has this topic on their minds, and I think (SAG) is trying to characterize it as more than it is."

Another entertainment labor attorney suggested that the AMPTP might not know every conversation that's taking place or who's calling whom.

"I don't think that the SAG leadership would have been so irresponsible to send out a letter to membership to say that smaller groups were having discussions if there weren't discussions taking place," the attorney said. "There are individuals within the business, probably at high levels, who are having conversations."

In the meantime, SAG will announce today the candidates running for open slots for a third of the union's 69 national board seats. Among the hopefuls will be members of the Hollywood board's MembershipFirst faction and the newly formed rival group Unite for Strength.

Some observers believe talks between SAG and the AMPTP won't move forward until the board elections, the results of which will be announced Sept. 19.

If the majority of MembershipFirst candidates win, it will be seen as an endorsement of the current bargaining approach and thus bolster SAG's position in the negotiations. However, if Unite for Strength's candidates win the majority of the seats, SAG's hard-line stance would likely be dropped for a more moderate position. Among the options before the board when it has its first meeting in October would be to replace Allen, the national executive director, as well as members of the negotiating committee who were voted off the board.

One veteran labor negotiator said if that scenario were to play out, the industry would not likely see a new actors contract until November. (partialdiff)
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