Greenlights still on yellow in H'wood

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While the removal of SAG national executive director Doug Allen — and, by implication, the threat of a strike — has brought relief to a large portion of the guild's membership and the industry at large, some in the studio production ranks have yet to exhale.

With the possibility of an actors strike hanging since the end of June — and arguably since the WGA strike in early 2008 — studio execs have been reluctant to push projects into production for many months. The costs and logistical headaches that a second walkout would cause have not, for the most part, been worth the risk.

This has meant not just a dearth of film jobs for already-hurting below-the-line workers but also a much smaller pocket of film roles for working actors. Although anti-strike forces have wrested control of the guild's negotiating capacity from more hard-line partisans, many in the studio ranks still aren't ready to open the barn doors and purse strings.

One agent said that while studio chatter about pulling together paused projects has increased in the wake of Allen's removal, it's neither across the board nor full speed. Paramount and Warner Bros. apparently are more bullish on moving forward, while others remain as wary as ever.

"The truth is, in this economy, no one really thought there was going to be a strike," said one studio production president. "It would have been suicide for all of us. So we all feel a little better that the chances are now very unlikely, but I don't think any of us really thought they were going to go out. I kind of feel like this went away a couple of weeks ago."

Last month, it became clear that hard-liners in the guild did not have the votes to authorize a strike, let alone call one.

Another studio head said current circumstances haven't really changed anything and that greenlight triggers will have their safeties on until the signatures on any potential new AMPTP-SAG deal are officially dry.

It's as if, given the often-wretched labor undercurrents of the past 14 months, something still could go terribly wrong. So while conversations with filmmakers and other packaging plans now can move forward with more confidence, it will be with strike contingencies built into above- and below-the-line contracts and a state of constant alertness.

And yet, some studios are tired of waiting. While many of the 2009 big-budget releases have managed to wrap on-camera production, studios soon will need to get the 2010 slate moving. For example, Universal now plans to go into production in the summer on its Robert Ludlum adaptation, "The Sigma Protocol" — strike be damned. And many smaller productions have set February and March start dates.

But for those cautious souls who would rather bide their time, just how long could ratification of a new SAG contract take? Based on a number of logistical factors: six weeks at the earliest.

Once the two sides sit back down again — which could happen as soon as next week, depending on scheduling — they still need to agree on a tentative contract both sides can recommend to their constituencies.

The AMPTP negotiators then have to get approval from the studio and network CEOs, and new chief negotiator John McGuire and the SAG task force have to deliver the deal to its closely divided national board for a vote. If a majority of the board approves the deal, a few days later ratification ballots would be sent to the paid-up membership to vote up or down. The ballots include the terms of the offered contract and a recommendation from the board on how to vote. However, if 25% or more of the national board votes no on the deal, a guild-vetted minority report arguing against voting to approve the plan also is added to the ballot.

Voters have a minimum of three weeks to respond, with a simple majority winning the day. The votes are tallied in a rolling fashion, so a final count is delivered to the board the day of the deadline.

Some in the guild are hoping that a tentative agreement could be reached with the AMPTP by Feb. 7, when the boards of AFTRA and SAG will meet via video conference to nail down priorities for their joint commercials contract. That timing would be auspicious because the already-convened SAG board then could use the opportunity to address the TV/theatrical tentative agreement the next day.

If that window is missed, another special national board video conference would have to be called for some future weekend.

As of Tuesday morning, the AMPTP's spokesman would not confirm whether the organization had yet heard from new SAG chief negotiator McGuire and declined comment other than to say the AMPTP will remain quiet on any developments in the near future. (partialdiff)
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