A force to be reckoned with

Actors majeured; writers next?

Ten days into the writers strike, the most dreaded phrase in Hollywood, force majeure, is a reality.

Universal Media Studios on Thursday began notifying the regulars on NBC's "Bionic Woman," "The Office" and "30 Rock" that the studio is suspending them, citing the force majeure provisions in their SAG contracts.

While deals with actors allow for the force majeure — or "greater force" — option right after production is suspended, such a contract clause could be invoked for writers very soon if the strike continues. Most overall writer deals trigger the termination clause four to six weeks into a stoppage, but in some, the cushion is said to be only two weeks.

That means that as of Monday, studios could start terminating their overall pacts with writers.

Since the beginning of the strike, TV studios have been debating how to deal with series regulars — whether to invoke the force majeure clause that allows studios to terminate actors for unanticipated or uncontrollable reasons put them on hiatus or do something else.

On Friday, Sony Pictures TV took a different tack, notifying the regulars on two of its sitcoms — " 'Til Death" and "Rules of Engagement" — that they are being put on unpaid hiatus, remaining exclusive to the studio (HR 11/12).

That move didn't sit well with AFTRA, which represents the two shows, or with SAG.

Both unions called putting actors on unpaid hiatus a violation of the SAG-AFTRA joint TV contract, which expires June 30, and vowed to take action against it.

According to SAG's interpretation of Section 61 of its collective bargaining agreement, the studios have three options in case of a strike: put series regulars on hold at full salary, suspend them for a period of up to five weeks at half-pay or terminate them.

If, like Universal, the studios opt for suspension, the performers themselves, according to SAG, can terminate their deals at the end of the five-week period. If they don't do that, the studios can choose to keep the regulars with full pay or end their deals.

Upon termination, actors are no longer paid and are free to do other projects. When production on the shows resumes, they are guaranteed to be rehired by the studios under the original terms of their deals.

The actors have to make an effort to accommodate the series, but their new projects are in first position. That would work well for in-demand-actors like "The Office" star Steve Carell, who can go off to do a movie without having to worry that an end of the strike would cut short his shoot.

During hiatus, however, actors must drop whatever they might be doing and report to their series immediately if those shows resume.

At least two other TV studios have been toying with the idea of putting actors on hiatus, but none has triggered that option since SAG and AFTRA's stern reaction to Sony's letters.

Meanwhile, a letter sent earlier this week by Hank Lachmund, senior vp labor relations at Warner Bros. TV, to production employees in the TV group and all studio facility employees was making the rounds Thursday. It estimates that, if the writers strike continues, all of its series will shut down production in the next six to seven weeks, possibly leading to loss of jobs within the studio.

"We currently anticipate that such layoffs, if they occur, will be temporary and that many employees will be recalled to work at some point after the WGA work stoppage ends," Lachmund wrote.