De facto impasse?

SAG, studios stop bargaining, at least for now

From the folks who brought you the de facto strike comes Hollywood's latest summer disaster saga: the de facto impasse.

Talks between Hollywood actors and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers have become so fractured that it appears they are in the state of a de facto impasse, with SAG saying they're still bargaining and the studios saying talks have ended.

Still, no official declaration of an impasse has been made by the AMPTP, though its executive vp business and legal affairs, Carol Lombardini, appeared to lay the groundwork for such an action at Thursday's meeting between the studios and SAG.

In transcripts released by the AMPTP on Friday, Lombardini told SAG's negotiating committee, "It is important to be clear: What we gave you on June 30 was our final offer. It doesn't get any better than that. That is the best deal you are going to achieve from us."

SAG, however, has pointed out that several "final offers" by the AMPTP have been made in past negotiations with other guilds and unions, most recently during the WGA negotiations, a charge the AMPTP denies.

Following Thursday's meeting, SAG president Alan Rosenberg said, "We believe bargaining is continuing."

A declaration of an impasse -- which would legally enable the studios to implement all or part of its "final offer" -- would benefit the studios, who could, for example, implement the contract without the clauses providing wage and residual increases to the guild.

The AMPTP said the final offer is a $250 million package that includes increases in minimums for actors, some jurisdiction over new media and retention of clip content for productions done before July 1, with actors then negotiating the use of their clips for new productions after that date. SAG calls the AMPTP's estimate of the offer's value "highly inflated."

The AMPTP released transcripts of the last meeting between the two sides on Thursday, in which Lombardini laid out further consequences for the guild should it not accept the offer.

First, she said, SAG would face losing out on the retroactive status of the offer. If SAG can ratify the agreement by Aug. 15, it will go into effect retroactively to July 1.

Additionally, Lombardini said if the economy continues to deteriorate and the studios start feeling more of a pinch, the AMPTP could very well take its final offer off the table and "re-evaluate" -- i.e. diminish -- it.

And lastly, she said, no new contract means further curtailed production in TV and film.

"There is no question that given the uncertainty of not having a deal, some feature productions will go on, while others will not," Lombardini said. "Each one that doesn't go forward results in fewer jobs and lost earnings for you. The risks are even greater in television. Continued uncertainty over contract status further jeopardizes scripted programming. Once again, it all amounts to less for you."

Lombardini ended by encouraging SAG's leadership to put the contract to a vote of its members for approval.

A SAG spokeswoman has said it is not up to the AMPTP to decide what the union's membership should vote on, and denied again that the guild has rejected the AMPTP's offer.

"We made a comprehensive counterproposal that adopted some of their proposals and offered alternatives on others," said SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen. "We significantly narrowed the gap between us while remaining committed to the principles of our bargaining priorities."

But several veteran lawyers say that when you've made a counteroffer, you've rejected the first offer.

"SAG can go out and say they're bargaining and didn't reject anything, but the law says otherwise," said one entertainment labor attorney. "They can call it whatever they want, it's a rejection. If they cut their DVD residual proposal from, say, 10% to 5%, that's still a rejection of the companies' proposal that there would be no increase.

"I think, unfortunately, we're in the throes of a war of attrition," the lawyer added. "The question is, does SAG have an endgame that will get them what they want? I haven't seen it. And if they don't, when are they going to realize that and somehow gracefully put this to a vote?"

SAG, whose negotiating committee met behind closed doors Friday, could hold out and wait for the AMPTP to make some kind of concession that would help both sides move forward and reach a deal. And if the guild declines to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for retroactive payments set by the AMPTP, the studios could just decide to go on with business and work with actors under an expired contract. In that case, the studios could slowly put projects back into production and operate at 60%-80% of their capacity.

Over time, however, the studios will need fresh product, and that might be the point in which they decide to bargain again with SAG.

In the meantime, SAG says it has inked more than 500 guaranteed completion agreements with feature film production companies that are not members of the AMPTP. The agreements indicate that if there was a strike, SAG members would not strike their productions. However, that does not mean there are 500 films out there getting ready to film.

The union's biggest sticking points are increases in DVD residuals, a say in product integration and jurisdiction over new media, including productions deemed "experimental."
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