SAG negotiators meet today

Behind-the-scenes progress leads to hope a deal can be reached soon

Chatter about SAG's long-stalled film and TV contract negotiations has turned from despairing to hopeful.

Word spread during the weekend that SAG national executive director David White had found common ground with studio executives during behind-the-scenes discussions the past few weeks.

At immediate issue is an AMPTP demand that the new agreement expire in 2012, three years after final ratification. SAG wants the contract start date made retroactive to July 1, 2008, so a new agreement would expire in sync with its sister guilds' at the end of June 2011.

Members of the guild's negotiations task force are expected to meet today, presumably to discuss the progress White has made on the issue. The previous film and TV contract expired June 30, and the guild's national board rejected the AMPTP's last, best and final offer Feb. 21.

SAG and AFTRA recently reached a tentative agreement with the advertising industry on a new commercials contract — in just 25 bargaining days — despite the complexity of the debated issues. But the speed of that resolution likely owed to the structure of the bargaining parties.

"When the JPC goes to the bargaining table, it's a combination of the AAAA and ANA, so they have a lot of authority at that bargaining table already," said Ivy Kagan Bierman, an industry labor lawyer and partner at Loeb & Loeb.

"When the AMPTP's at the bargaining table, a lot of other major players and networks have representatives at that bargaining table, too. So it's a lot harder to get consensus — although, surprisingly, they took very tough positions and seemed to get some good consensus from the studio and network labor and business-affairs executives."

All of which is why end-around discussions held directly with such company CEOs as Disney's Robert Iger and Fox's Peter Chernin tend to be the most effective. Agreements with the DGA and WGA finally were brokered last year by the intervention of such men outside of official AMPTP negotiating sessions.

It's the ultimate corporate good cop-bad cop scenario as the studio and network executives get credit for last-minute magnanimity that seals a tentative deal.

The key word in this case being "tentative." Even if the task force signs off on the outline of the proposed agreement and the moderate-leaning national board passes and recommends it for ratification, there will still be a hard-fought internal war throughout the membership at large over the merits of approving it.

The MembershipFirst forces spearheaded by defanged SAG president Alan Rosenberg have long vowed to fight ratification of any proposed agreement that contains its current parameters. On Thursday, anti-offer protesters plan to march outside AMPTP offices in Sherman Oaks in the latest of their weekly demonstrations.

Adding to the pressure of the stalemate are looming SAG elections, whose campaigns would become enmeshed in the contract battle the longer the impasse goes on. All the while, SAG's membership continues to miss out on gains written into the current proposal that they have been rejecting since last summer.

Meanwhile, the studios are feeling the heat as they need to relaunch film production in earnest to fill 2010 slates.
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