Pressure shifts to SAG after AFTRA deal

Guild returns to negotiation table

Now what?

With AFTRA reaching a tentative deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers after round-the-clock talks during Memorial Day weekend, attention now turns to SAG and whether the guild will follow the lead of its sister union as it revs up talks for its primetime/theatrical contract. SAG and AFTRA contracts with Hollywood producers expire June 30.

SAG returned to the table Wednesday after a three-week break following suspension of formal talks with the studios' org, the AMPTP, which began April 15. AFTRA, which had twice postponed its talks so that SAG could continue with its bargaining, started its negotiations with the producers May 7 and reached its tentative agreement early Wednesday morning.

In a statement, SAG president Alan Rosenberg said he did not know the details of the AFTRA/AMPTP deal but, along with staff, will "thoroughly analyze and evaluate the principles" of the agreement.

Despite Rosenberg's inability to immediately sit down with his sister union's negotiators, SAG almost certainly will be under great pressure to conform with the template provided by AFTRA as well as with those of the earlier agreed DGA and WGA contracts.

The tentative AFTRA contract, set for review by the union's national board June 6-7, does not stray far from those already negotiated this year by the WGA, DGA and AFTRA in its Network Code. Left by the wayside, as with the other unions, are attempts to get increases in DVD residuals.

AFTRA did bargain an increase in wages for traditional media, more contributions by employers to the union's health and pension plan and preservation and coverage of low-budget programs. Much of the contract focused on the ever-changing Internet landscape and includes a "sunset provision" allowing both sides to revisit new-media issues within the three-year agreement.

"It's really a victory," AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said Wednesday. "All this 'made for new media' stuff is brand new, and nobody knows what it's going to look like in the future. We need to have some structure there, to make sure our members can participate."

With the sunset provision, Reardon said it was important for both sides to realize that the industry is in "an experimental period" when it comes to new media. The ability to come back to the table on new media allows both AFTRA and the AMPTP to take "a very forthcoming look at the deal and see how the business is working.

"The studios understand that it's changing," she said. "It's easier for everybody to negotiate together instead of against each other."

But while solidarity may be a future goal, SAG still has to negotiate solo its primetime/theatrical contract. AFTRA voted to suspend its joint bargaining agreement with SAG prior to formal talks starting up in April. And while SAG boasts more members, the union's leaders have acknowledged that it will be harder to push key issues like consent for clip use.

Industry watchers echo the sentiment.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure on them with the AFTRA deal," Troy Gould entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel said. "SAG is going to be a slow process where it may go past June 30 and we may be in a de facto lockout.

"They're not going to fold easily," he added. "It's only going to be the pressure of a deadline that's going to get the SAG deal done."

Among the biggest issues both unions have had to tackle was the AMPTP's proposal to establish an online clip library and require actors to give up individual consent for nonpromotional use. For decades, actors have had the right to separately bargain the use of their clips that fall outside the scope of promotional use. But with the popularity of YouTube and other sites, the AMPTP has proposed the online clip library to combat piracy and create a new revenue-generating platform. SAG left negotiations several weeks ago without any deal on clips, with its leaders calling the issue a "boulder" blocking a new deal.

The AFTRA-AMPTP deal for now preserves that right to consent; however, it also provides for the producers and AFTRA to develop within a three-month time frame "mechanisms" for the performer to allow or withhold consent. For programs produced after July 1, the performers can bargain the clip consent issue with the employer at that time.

In a briefing on negotiations sent to members last week, SAG said: "We understand that employers are looking for new business models to keep up with the technological boom. In fact, we offered to allow actors to consent and negotiate for future clip use at the time they are hired, starting in July 2008. But the AMPTP did not agree to our counterproposal."

What changed with the AMPTP between the time SAG made that offer and AFTRA negotiating essentially the same proposal is unclear.

Still, some industry watchers view AFTRA's clip consent agreement to be irrelevant.

"The actors don't actually have any meaningful way to not consent because the negotiation takes place at the same time they're hired," Handel said. "If there's a deal and the studio says 'We want your consent' and the actor says no, the studio can say: 'Fine. We'll hire someone else.'

"The actor has no leverage," he added. "It's a fig leaf put over the issue."

But despite this stumbling block, Handel said, "Economically, that's the only way you can have a clip business."

Said labor attorney Scott Witlin, who represents producers, "The studios didn't get everything they were looking for, but I think they got something that they think they can work with going forward.

"The producers have a tough issue with all these Internet sites," he added. "They're operating under greater restrictions than YouTube."

AFTRA's contract covers a dozen shows in primetime and cable, including "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Flight of the Conchords" and "Rules of Engagement." The union, which covers 70,000 members, including 52,000 actors, previously negotiated its daytime TV contract, which its members ratified in late April. SAG reps 110,000 actors, of which 44,000 also are AFTRA members.