Biz watches AFTRA-studio cliffhanger

Questions could be answered as last day of talks closes

UPDATE: AFTRA, AMPTP sign tentative deal

It was as tense and dramatic as any primetime drama's season finale: The industry was left in a holding pattern Tuesday, waiting for word about whether AFTRA had inked a deal on its primetime TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The contract expires June 30, and Tuesday marked the last day of talks for AFTRA and the producers, with SAG waiting in the wings to restart its negotiations today.

No deal has been announced as of late Tuesday afternoon, but questions abound: Will there be yet another changing of the guard, with AFTRA not reaching a deal and SAG swooping in today to pick up where it left off on its formal talks? Or will AFTRA ask SAG to postpone its talks, just as SAG had done with its sister union during its 18 days of negotiations, which ended May 6? And if so, will SAG graciously say yes or refuse to give up its date with the AMPTP?

AFTRA and the AMPTP began formal negotiations May 7. Under a news blackout, little information about the talks has come out during the past 16 days other than two updates sent by AFTRA president Roberta Reardon to members and a "basic facts" message posted on the AMPTP's Web site.

In both, Reardon said that while progress had been made, the talks had not gone as smoothly as many watchers had expected, citing similar stumbling blocks SAG had revealed following its negotiating sessions with the producers.

The biggest roadblock for both unions is the re-use of actors' clips by the studios without individual consent. The AMPTP has proposed that an online clip library be established to combat the increasing Internet piracy of such excerpts while at the same time generating revenue. But administratively, the requirement to get consent from each actor to use those clips would be overwhelming.

"Under the rules of the existing SAG and AFTRA contracts -- rules which originated 50 years ago -- clips from the library, even those lasting only a few seconds, can only be used if the producer 'bargains' separately with every performer in the clip and reaches an agreement to pay each performer at least the day pay minimum of $759," the AMPTP said in a statement posted May 20 on its Web site. "This could require the producer to bargain hundreds or thousands of times with an individual performer over clips from a single series or feature. Hundreds of thousands of separate negotiations would be required to clear a library."

Reardon told members in a message this Sunday that the union's negotiating committee is standing firm in protecting members rights while "trying to think out of the box in order to reach pragmatic resolutions."

Reardon later added, "AFTRA is focused on working with employers to find a creative solution that will protect our members' images while at the same time encouraging the growth of the new market."

SAG also has indicated its willingness to work with the AMPTP, saying it's ready to return to the bargaining table, but it has issued stronger statements about giving up consent.

"They (AMPTP members) are now seeking to reach back into their vaults and release nonpromotional clips and sell them for use in various new-media platforms," SAG said in a statement to members last week. "As proposed, they want to use clips form all motion pictures and television shows produced to date and into through the future without your consent.

"While the companies have proposed nominal, nonnegotiable payments for the use, your right to consent and negotiate would be gone if we accept this proposal."

With the clip issue surfacing, the uncertainty of a deal has left most in the industry worried that another strike is imminent. Already, many studios are operating under de facto conditions by not scheduling any productions after June 30.

In the meantime, SAG has inked deals for guaranteed completion contracts with such indie producers as Yari Film Group and the Film Department. Under the agreements, SAG promises not to strike their productions in the event of an actor walkout.