SAG talking, clock ticking

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As the final hours of SAG's contract with Hollywood's studios slide away, it's clear that fans of final-reel turnarounds are likely to be disappointed.

With two weekend bargaining sessions complete, only today's scheduled talks remain before the union's TV/theatrical contract expires Tuesday at 12:01 a.m.

Barring any eleventh-hour surprises, the guild and the studios will have several options once the deadline passes. They could negotiate a contract extension, which could be by day, week or month, and keep talking; the studios could lock out the actors; or SAG could seek a strike-authorization vote from its membership, which will be at least a two-week process as the negotiating committee must vote on whether to bring a strike.

Most industry insiders believe that nothing of substance will come of SAG's talks with the studios until July 8, when the result of the AFTRA membership's ratification vote on its newly brokered primetime TV contract is announced. SAG and the AMPTP have been unable to ink a deal in the 41 days they have been negotiating and have been pointing the finger at each other for the sluggish process.

SAG blames the AMPTP for not offering them a deal that is even close to or better than what AFTRA negotiated with the studios. The AMPTP claims that SAG is diverting its attention to waging an anti-AFTRA contract battle with the 44,000 who are members of both unions.

The weekend meetings were the first both sides have had since starting up Round 2 of talks.

While there is uncertainty surrounding a new contract, there is little doubt that Hollywood already is in the midst of a de facto strike. The industry is still recovering from the 100-day WGA strike, which shuttered TV and film productions and resulted in $2.5 billion in lost wages and other revenue.

"If you're a below-the-line worker, your blood is probably running cold because they're the ones that took the biggest hit from the writers strike," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

Among those still feeling the sting of the WGA strike are members of the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600.

In a letter sent to its members late Thursday about the SAG negotiations, guild national president Steven Poster wrote that another industry strike would deal "a serious blow to our health and pension plans, neither of which has recovered from the WGA strike."

Poster took issue with SAG's unwillingness to get a deal and denounces "dysfunctional leadership" that threatens the guild's livelihood.

"SAG has not brought anything new or promising to the bargaining table, and a factional rift within SAG's membership is threatening to not only damage the union itself but the industry as a whole," Poster wrote.

"This movie has to end soon," he added. "The paltry gains for which SAG continues to fight do not justify the pain a strike or continued slowdown will bring to those who work in this industry, who fight to pay their mortgages, feed their families and keep their health coverage intact."

Relief groups like the Motion Picture & Television Fund are gearing up to help more in need and say the number of calls for assistance have already doubled.

So far, the MPTF estimates that it has distributed close to $1 million in financial assistance to more than 2,000 families since November, when the WGA strike started.

"If an agreement can't be reached, MPTF will be there to relieve some of the financial duress on industry workers affected by a stop in production, as well as those still recovering form the writers strike," president David Tillman said. "We would expect the need this time to be higher because many industry workers have depleted their savings and now have no financial cushion on which to fall back."

The pinch also is being felt across the border in Canada, where studio operators say the SAG contract talks are putting a damper on production there.

There is one Canadian bright spot production-wise: Vancouver, where U.S. TV series provide welcome work for worried crews. "We feel fortunate to have the business that we have, but we're concerned that people might be out of work again, which isn't good for the industry at any time," said Peter Leitch, president of Mammoth and North Shore studios in Vancouver.

The industry sentiments echo similar ones put out by AFTRA members and actor George Clooney, who issued a "can't we all just get along"-type statement Thursday.

While Clooney has not taken sides in the SAG vs. AFTRA battle, several other A-listers have., including Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Viggo Mortensen, who support SAG's position. Supporters of AFTRA ratifying its pact include Tom Hanks, Sally Field and Kevin Spacey.

The division among SAG members has reached its own national executive board.

In an e-mail circulating among members, New York board president and national second vp Sam Freed said that SAG leadership has snubbed his request to send to New York members a letter indicating that the N.Y. leadership does not support the anti-AFTRA campaign SAG.

The message, which includes Freed's letter to members, accuses the guild of having an inconsistent policy when it comes to contacting its members. Freed said that while SAG has allowed "robo calls" and e-mails supporting the anti-AFTRA message to members, it has refused to allow him — a member of SAG's negotiating committee — to circulate his message opposing the campaign.

In response, SAG said Freed's statement was inaccurate because not all members of the New York division were consulted about his comments before its submission.

SAG also said that only Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen are the official guild spokesmen when it comes to the negotiations, as reaffirmed by the board of directors in March.

Etan Vlessing in Toronto and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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