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Despite tentative SAG deal, some actors upset

A faction of the union called Membership First remains vocal and has a well-funded political machine it intends to use to fight ratification.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A group of Hollywood actors remains staunchly opposed to a proposed two-year deal with the major studios, and is gearing up to fight its ratification by members.

The Screen Actors Guild board approved the tentative deal by a slim margin of 53 percent to 47 percent on Sunday. But the minority group against the deal, a faction called Membership First, remains vocal and has a well-funded political machine it intends to use to fight ratification “as hard as anything I’ve campaigned against,” said its spokeswoman, Anne-Marie Johnson.

Talks on a contract covering movies and prime-time TV shows have run well past the contract’s expiration last June. But with ballots to be sent to 120,000 members for a vote in the next few weeks, actors in Hollywood are bracing for a final battle.

Scott Wilson, a 67-year-old actor who has been in more than 50 movies and nearly a dozen TV shows, is part of the hardline group opposing the deal and has protested the studio’s offer for the last 12 weeks in front of the Guild’s headquarters in Los Angeles.

On Monday following the board’s weekend vote, he took up his post again.

“I believe if this should be ratified by membership, it is the end of acting as a profession,” Wilson said.

Wilson argues that the agreement is dangerous because it allows producers to create Internet-only shows with non-union actors, opening the door to the union’s eventual irrelevance.

The agreement also reduces residual payments — checks that actors receive on DVD sales or show reruns — for content that is offered on the Web versus on traditional platforms.

Wilson said actors’ residual income, sometimes half their earnings, will shrink by millions of dollars because networks are cutting back on TV reruns and more and more movies and TV shows are ending up online.

He said the same tactics were used by the studios to trim actors’ compensation on emerging technologies when cable TV became a force in the 1980s, and again when DVDs took hold in the 1990s.

“Now they’re singing the same old song: ’We’ll sunset this and renegotiate this in two years,”’ Wilson said. “You know from history what that means. Once they have the template, that’s going to be the model and they’re not going to change it.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, declined to comment.

‘The networks are not going to slit their throats’A moderate Guild faction called Unite for Strength pushed Membership First out of power last fall in internal elections that reflected actors’ unhappiness with the long delay in reaching a deal.

The moderates will mount a campaign of their own, courting actors by “disabusing them of some of the disinformation and scare tactics” that Membership First has used to rally opposition, said Sam Freed, president of the Guild’s New York division, which is working with the moderate group.

He argued that under the proposal, non-union actors are only allowed on “low budget” shows costing less than $15,000 per minute, and only then if no actor hired has credits on stage or screen — exceptional cases that don’t matter much to working actors.

Freed also notes that networks are making far less in advertising revenue on online reruns than with broadcast TV reruns, and are not about to make a switch that will hurt actors’ residual income by much.

“The networks are not going to slit their throats and rush their product to the Internet,” he said. “It’s a real bogus argument.”

Two years will give the Guild time to evaluate the studios’ business models for online content, and prepare it for the next negotiating round. Contracts ratified by fellow actors union AFTRA, the writers and the directors also will expire around the same time in 2011.

Freed argues it is more important to ratify a contract now that immediately raises the minimum pay of actors by 3 percent and another 3.5 percent in the second year of the deal.

The studios have estimated SAG actors lost nearly $70 million in wage increases by allowing the contract to lapse for nearly a year, missing out on a proposed 3.5 percent increase in the first year that has now been scrapped.

During that time, movie production has slowed, and some projects have been waiting in the wings until the labor uncertainty was cleared up, Freed said.

“Members are going to vote this up because they want to get back to work,” he added.

The Guild’s majority group and its minority opposition will write up materials for and against the agreement in the next two weeks that will accompany the ballots, and voting is expected to wrap up in four or five weeks.

Alan Rosenberg, the Guild’s president and a Membership First supporter, voted as a board member against the deal Sunday. But he acknowledged that board infighting may not be representative of opinions held by the acting community.

The last time the guild polled its members in September, 87 percent of respondents supported holding out for a better deal. That was before the economy went into the tank and the studios’ unwillingness to bargain had hardened for good as DVD sales fell.

“I understand our members need those pay raises and they need to keep on working,” Rosenberg said. “That’s why we need to hear from them. We need to know whether those pay raises are more important than their participation in the Internet, now and in the future.”