The credits are about to roll on a contract drama involving actors in Hollywood’s biggest movies and TV shows, a fight that has left them bitterly divided and further behind than they started.
On Tuesday, the Screen Actors Guild will count ballots sent to 120,000 members on a new contract. The vote followed invective-laced infighting and drawn-out talks that failed to achieve goals set by SAG’s now-replaced leaders to improve compensation for movies and TV shows that run on the Internet.
Hollywood actors seem split for and against the deal, while those based in New York are largely in favor. The outcome could depend on the votes of the vast majority of SAG members who are mostly actors without work.
Either result would have little short-term effect, because throughout the dispute, actors have continued to work under the conditions of their old contract. A strike threat diminished after moderates ousted the leadership of SAG in a boardroom coup early this year.
But a rejection of the contract risks driving the union into irrelevance. Already, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have ordered new pilots and shows heavily under contracts with a smaller actors union, AFTRA. It ratified a similar contract deal nearly a year ago, giving studios certainty that SAG actors without a contract could not.
SAG’s new contract, if approved, immediately raises the minimum pay of actors by 3 percent and another 3.5 percent in the second year of the deal. But actors lose out on the raises they would have gotten over the past year.
The studios had run an online wage clock showing the amount SAG actors had given up by failing to cut a deal last June, when the old contract expired. The clock would have hit nearly $79 million by Tuesday.
SAG was able to win a concession: The new contract will expire on June 30, 2011, about the same time as those of other unions, allowing SAG to maintain the future threat of a joint strike. That expiration date had been one of the final points of contention.
“I think everyone was very weary of not having a contract and of hearing the rhetoric increasingly heated up on both sides of the equation,” said actor Adam Arkin, who was elected to the Guild’s board last fall.
The sides he referred to were not the Hollywood producers and the actors. They were the two warring factions within the Guild itself.
AFTRA’s ratification of a deal last July quickly set two SAG camps at each others’ throats.
Some actors protested the SAG leaders’ hardline negotiating tactics. James Cromwell, a former SAG board member, accused the Guild of holding the town “hostage,” especially when other actors, directors and writers had signed a pact.
“Let’s get what we can get,” he pressed at the time.
Unite for Strength, the faction to which Arkin belongs, put together a coalition that this year fired executive director Doug Allen, muzzled President Alan Rosenberg and installed David White as interim executive director.
Rosenberg, part of the opposing camp, called Membership First, continues to campaign hard against the deal and has called for a strike vote, but he no longer speaks on behalf of the Guild. He has also been denied access to the running tally of votes that is usually shared with the president on contract votes.
Rosenberg blamed critical voices within the Guild — including Tom Hanks and George Clooney — for causing division among actors and for the long delay in coming to a deal, one that he calls “the worst deal we’ve ever been presented with.”
“I don’t take responsibility for how long these negotiations have taken. I hold those who attacked us since before these negotiations began for that,” he said. “Everything else I’ll take credit or blame for.”
But as talks languished under his watch, the rival AFTRA union gained from the uncertainty, even though its contracts are now slightly more expensive than SAG’s because its 3.5 percent raise in minimum pay in the first year already kicked in.
Of the 30 TV shows that were picked up by broadcast networks this spring, like ABC’s “Modern Family” or Fox’s “Brothers,” 25 were AFTRA deals and just five were SAG, a reversal of last season when 19 were SAG and three were AFTRA.
Although about 44,000 actors are members of both unions, SAG’s diminished relevance on TV shows may be permanent because union representation cannot be changed midway. That means that as current shows are replaced by new ones, SAG’s hold may further erode.
SAG still maintains exclusive jurisdiction over feature films. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, declined to comment.
Sam Freed, an actor and president of the Guild’s New York division, said the real problem began more than a year ago, when bickering prompted AFTRA and SAG to negotiate their major studio deals separately for the first time in nearly three decades.
Now, he said, the deal will give the Guild two years to regroup and analyze the revenues that are to be gained from Internet distribution of TV shows and movies. As for what happens if actors do not ratify the deal, he said, “Ask President Rosenberg.”