Actors reach deal with Hollywood studios

July 9, 2008 6:58:01 AM PDT
The labor drama gripping Hollywood is now entering its final act after one actors group said its members ratified a new deal and the other prepared to turn down the major studios' final offer. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists said Tuesday that its members had ratified a three-year prime-time TV contract with studios with 62 percent of voting members supporting it, after fierce opposition from the larger Screen Actors Guild.

The deal goes into effect retroactive to July 1.

"In the face of that kind of attack, the percentage we ratified this by is really good," AFTRA president Roberta Reardon told reporters late Tuesday. A previous AFTRA contract covering soaps and talk shows received 93 percent support.

SAG, which said approval of the deal would undermine its own talks, responded by saying its bargaining was not yet done.

"We will continue to address the issues of importance to actors that AFTRA left on the table," SAG President Alan Rosenberg said in a statement.

That left Hollywood in limbo about whether there would be a replay of the 100-day writers strike that ended in February. The guild, with 120,000 members, represents the vast majority of actors in prime-time TV and movies, and still could throw the industry into turmoil.

AFTRA has 70,000 members including actors, singers, announcers and journalists. SAG and AFTRA share 44,000 dual members. Talks between SAG and the producers have largely stopped since the expiration of the actors' contract on June 30, but the guild has not called for a strike authorization vote.

The alliance, representing major studios under companies such as Viacom Inc. and The Walt Disney Co., is set to meet with SAG on Thursday to discuss the producers' final offer.

The alliance said the offer was worth $250 million in new compensation.

The studios said in a statement they hope the AFTRA vote "demonstrates to SAG's Hollywood leadership that there is support for the new economic relationships we have built with writers, directors and actors -- and not much support for a strike." The AFTRA deal marked the studios' fourth major labor agreement in the last five months.

But the guild is holding out for further increases in fees for DVD sales and Internet content and better protection for actors made to endorse products in scripted scenes.

It took out an ad to run in the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday, appealing directly to media company executives who are in Sun Valley, Idaho for the Allen & Co. investment bank's annual retreat.

"We want a deal," the guild ad said. "Let's keep talking." Entertainment lawyer Scott Witlin, who has represented television networks in the past, said the ratification vote by the smaller actors union should pressure SAG to relent.

"Hopefully the SAG leadership will come to their senses," Witlin said. "People in Hollywood have been through one painful strike already this year and I don't think people have the stomach for another one."

Studios and the actors unions have said they wanted to avoid another work stoppage like the devastating strike by the Writers Guild of America that ended in February.

That walkout stalled production on dozens of TV shows and is estimated to have cost the Los Angeles-area economy more than $2 billion.

AFTRA said its three-year deal, involving a handful of prime-time TV shows such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Rules of Engagement," establishes higher fees for downloaded content and residual payments for ad-supported streams and clips.

It also sets a 90-day deadline after ratification to develop rules that would have actors consent to the use of clips in a commercial market similar to iTunes.

The dispute had pitted actor against actor, with Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin and others urging support for the AFTRA deal while Jack Nicholson, Viggo Mortensen and Holly Hunter endorsed SAG.

On Tuesday, Reardon called for a summit of actors, performers and other leaders in the next months to restore unity to the bargaining process.

Membership squabbles in March led SAG and AFTRA to bargain with studios separately for the first time in 27 years.

"Perhaps there are things that might have worked better if we'd all been sitting together at the very beginning," Reardon said.

Actor Danny Woodburn, a 43-year-old actor who has appeared in "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," said he was running for a SAG board position when about a third of the members' terms end in September, partly to heal the rift between performers.

"My goal is to get the two unions back on the same path at least. If it doesn't mean merger, it means a united front," he said.

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