Outlook for SAG Talks Optimistic

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Intermission in Hollywood's spring labor drama ends Tuesday afternoon when actors sit down to negotiate a new TV and movie contract with the major studios.

Just a few weeks ago, a strike by both writers and actors seemed all but inevitable. But now few are betting that the Screen Actors Guild and its smaller sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, will walk out--especially after the Writers Guild of America settled with the industry this month.

Although strike tensions have been deflated by the tentative settlement with writers--earning them an additional $41 million over three years--actors nonetheless say they are determined to press for more money in several areas, with a focus on middle-income performers they believe are falling behind financially.

"The template has been made. All you have to do is figure out ways to mold that template to the unique needs of actors," said industry negotiator J. Nicholas Counter.

SAG chief negotiator Brian Walton says he is confident that the studios will, in fact, deliver on that commitment. "If they do, there will be a deal on or before June 30," said Walton, referring to SAG's current contract expiration date.

On the eve of the negotiations, SAG today will hold a news conference in which its leaders will provide a broad outline of their goals and are expected to underscore their mutual desire to reach a deal and avert a strike that would shut down all movie and television production across the country.

But already much is known about what they hope to achieve and how they will go about it.

As is often the case in Hollywood labor talks, both sides will probably negotiate an overall money package, then figure out how to allocate it among classes of workers represented under the contract.

In particular, union officials are concerned that guest stars on TV shows--often veteran, recognizable actors whose careers have ebbed--have become victims of "salary compression" where their pay is getting squeezed. SAG's proposals will push both for increases in initial compensation and residuals, or payments when work is rerun.

Studios say that the solution isn't just throwing money at it. They argue that the huge salaries A-list stars command has left little money in casting budgets for other actors. Actors contend that studios use that argument as an excuse not to pay actors their fair share.

SAG officials estimate that salaries for working-class television actors (those often defined as "non series regulars"), have risen about 1% over the last seven years, compared with 15% to 25% for series regulars.

Actors are expected to push for better pay when network shows are sold to cable TV or sold in videocassette, although writers struck out in trying to get a better deal in both those areas.

Though actors hold the power to strike, the likelihood of a walkout is slim not only because the writers have settled, but because SAG is still recovering from the financial hits its union, members and health fund took from last year's painful six-month strike against the advertising industry.

SAG's 2000 earnings report showed that because of that lost work, money made from commercials fell $100 million. That figure is likely to grow even more because it doesn't include residuals actors would have earned at a later date on commercials that would have been shot during the strike.

Still, actors believe they have serious and unique issues to negotiate, suggesting it still won't be easy when the two sides meet at the industry's Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers headquarters in Encino.

"These negotiations will pose the question, 'Are the companies that dominate this industry going to exercise the leadership required to produce a deal that solves the unique problems and meets the unique needs of middle-income, principal on-camera actors?' " Walton said.

Although the writers' deal paved the way for actors to get some things they wanted, such as forcing the Fox network to pay the same rate as other television networks on residuals, actors are reluctant to call that agreement a template. Instead, they prefer to call it a "stepping stone" that will help them get what they want.

With just six weeks to go before their contract expires, actors have slimmed down their proposals to about 35--the most streamlined in years--in an effort to expedite the negotiating process.

In years past, negotiations would typically start with 80 to 100 demands on the table. That's because SAG and AFTRA's 135,000 combined membership is a mosaic of performers--stunt people, pilots, extras, singers, dancers, stars and many who barely work. They typically assemble their contract demands like a Christmas wish list, often down to minute levels, such as where performers should have to change clothes.

"The two unions and their members are united and focused going into these negotiations," said AFTRA chief negotiator Stephen Burrow.

How actors are paid is determined by a myriad of complex formulas depending on how substantive the role is, the number of days on the set and other factors. As is true with any top talent in Hollywood, minimum guaranteed payments are irrelevant to major stars, who, along with their agents, cut far more lucrative deals.

Although there is no precise definition of a middle-class actor, union officials say a good rule of thumb is someone who acts full time, making $30,000 to $60,000 annually.

Even that is considered a good living for most actors. Because of the glut of people who want to act compared with available roles, 85% to 90% in the profession are unemployed at any given time. SAG numbers show that 70% of its nearly 100,000 members earn less than $7,500 a year, with only 2% earning more than $100,000 annually.

Helping talks is that both sides are working off the same financial numbers, having completed a confidential study of 29,814 productions related to residual payments actors get when their work is rerun. In past years, lengthy arguments over whose numbers to believe have bogged down talks.

"Both sides are working from the same factual basis. We may disagree on what it means, but we're all starting at the same place in terms of facts," Counter said.

They also are toning down the volume heading into talks and are going out of their way to be cordial toward each other.

Last week, Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer and Counter even watched the Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center with Walton and actor Tom LaGrua of SAG's negotiating committee. (During the writers' negotiations, one indication talks were heading in the right direction came when Writers Guild President John Wells and DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg watched a Lakers game together.)

Mindful of the consequences of a strike, SAG President William Daniels and Walton have insisted a deal can be made.

"Our respected colleagues in this industry, and citizens who are dependent on this industry, have nothing to fear from actors. We know our power and pledge to use it responsibly," Walton said.

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