The Screen Actors Guild's rejection of a "last, best and final" labor offer by major studios over the weekend has industry watchers saying their long and bitter contract talks could be stalled for weeks.
SAG, the largest U.S. actors union with 120,000 members, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents film and television studios, have been at loggerheads over a new contract for nearly eight months.
During that time, SAG leadership has squabbled internally, argued about whether to strike and ousted its chief negotiator, replacing him with a "task force" that gave away many key demands in new media to try to strike a deal late last week.
During the three days of talks that ended Thursday, the studios proposed a new start date for the contract. SAG balked and now the two parties are at odds again. Experts think the studios have the upper hand.
"SAG is going to have to either make some concessions on some issues, or they're going to have to go to their members and get them to vote for a strike," said Mark Litwak, an entertainment attorney monitoring the contract talks.
But a strike is unlikely because SAG's internal debate over that subject led to the ouster of chief negotiator Doug Allen.
"What the hardliners among the studios want is a Screen Actors Guild unable to strike and unable to negotiate with any real leverage," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney and former co-counsel with the Writers Guild of America.
The latest stumbling block is the studio's insistence on changing the contract start date to when it is signed, instead of retroactively to the June 30, 2008 end of the old labor deal.
SAG has rejected that idea because doing so would put its contract out of sync with sister unions and weaken future bargaining power. Industry watchers say SAG could keep working under its old contract until 2011 when the Writers Guild of America and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists will be up for new deals. Joining with either of those two would boost all the unions' negotiating leverage.
But experts said that scenario is unlikely, too, as actors and studios would both suffer for years. The studios risk jeopardizing financing for movie projects, and SAG would see its members lose out on the benefits of a new deal the studio's say is $250 million richer than the old one.
Handel said negotiations could remain stalled until at least the middle of March as the two sides jointly begin new contract talks with advertisers for commercial work.
"I would like to think that saner heads prevail and that we'll have an agreement before the end of the year," said David Ginsburg, a UCLA professor of entertainment and media law.
Officials from SAG and the studios declined to comment. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)