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Strike 2? Hollywood braces for actor walkout

The SAG and AFTRA contract expires Monday, and another strike coming so quickly on the heels of the writers' strike could be devastating, some say.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hollywood loves a good sequel, but here’s one it could do without: Another union strike just months after the town got up and running again from a devastating walkout by writers.

The contract between the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires Monday, and negotiations have dragged on for weeks with no apparent headway.

SAG leaders have said they are willing to continue talking beyond the contract deadline. Yet their hard-line rhetoric and a squabble with another actors union could put performers on the sidelines, taking electricians, set-builders, caterers and other Hollywood working stiffs along with them.

“If you’re a below-the-line worker, your blood is probably running cold, because they’re the ones that took the biggest hit from the writers strike,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., which estimates the WGA walkout cost the town $2.5 billion in lost wages and other revenue.

A strike in July — or a potential actors lockout if producers decided to play tough — could delay the return of many fall TV shows, which normally would be going back into production then.

With a longer lead time, big-screen movies generally are in good shape through the early part of summer 2009, with studios rushing to finish production on most films before the actors’ contract expired.

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A few films such as “The Hannah Montana Movie” and Tom Hanks’ “Angels & Demons” could be forced to shut down if a strike occurred. A long walkout could postpone movies scheduled to start shooting late this summer and fall, including Russell Crowe’s “Nottingham.”

“The possibility of another strike, especially in this economy, has the town on edge, including the thousands of guild and crew members who are still recovering from the last strike,” said Jesse Hiestand, spokesman for the producers alliance.

Big action films could ride out a short strike by turning to other work while actors were off. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, producer of next summer’s sequel “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” said the filmmakers factored in a hiatus where they can get by without actors, working on visual effects instead.

Many SAG members also belong to AFTRABut it would be another blow to an industry that remains in a stall after the writers strike.

“It’s not been a complete shutdown, but everybody’s been working at pretty minimal capacity the last nine months,” di Bonaventura said. “The pain everybody felt over the last nine months certainly makes the prospect of another strike even more foreboding.”

While the Writers Guild of America went on strike in general solidarity among members, SAG is a house divided. Its 120,000 members include 44,000 who also belong to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and leaders of the two unions are at each other’s throats.

AFTRA, with 70,000 total members, negotiated a contract similar to ones writers and directors accepted this year. SAG is holding out for a better deal that many in Hollywood say it cannot realistically achieve in a business stung first by losses from the 100-day writers strike and now by studio stinginess amid the weak economy.

“Militancy has its moments,” said James Cromwell, a former SAG board member who is among members of both unions urging AFTRA to approve the deal.

“Under the circumstances, with this town having just gone through a writers strike, militancy is useless,” Cromwell said by phone from Shreveport, La., where he is co-starring as George H.W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s “W.”

While the unions traditionally have negotiated side by side, they split this time, and SAG leaders are actively campaigning to defeat AFTRA’s contract, whose results are due July 8.

SAG is pushing for more money on DVD residuals, a raise producers have refused to give other Hollywood unions. Leaders of SAG also say the AFTRA contract shortchanges actors on potential revenue from Internet programming.

“When unions compete with different contract terms, actors lose. It starts a race to the bottom that SAG doesn’t want to win,” SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen said in a June 23 message asking actors who belong to both unions to vote against AFTRA’s deal.

Along with Cromwell, actors such as Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey and Morgan Fairchild are among hundreds who have signed an agreement encouraging AFTRA members to approve the deal.

SAG, which accounts for about 90 percent of TV production and all of the film industry, insists it can strike a better bargain. But if the AFTRA deal goes through by a wide margin, it could undermine SAG’s leaders, who might not be able to drum up the votes should they decide to ask members to authorize a strike.

“The worst thing you can do is to try to get it and fail,” AFTRA President Roberta Reardon said. “It’s hard to imagine a performer voting yes for one contract then voting to put himself out on the street for the other one.”

‘It’s not worth it’Alexandra Leighton, a 28-year-old actress who appears in two episodes of the new CBS drama “Swingtown,” said she is voting for the AFTRA deal and would oppose a SAG strike.

Leighton backs SAG’s demand for tougher consent rules over use of an actor’s image in online clips, but she said it was not worth losing her job — her first acting gig outside of commercials.

“Too many people would be put out of work,” Leighton said. “It’s just not worth it. The economy is already iffy, and it would just crush the local economy.”

It also could ruin some TV series. Audiences did without new episodes on many shows for months while writers were on strike. If actors walk and new episodes vanish again, fans could lose interest for good.

When writers returned in February, the feeling in Hollywood was that cooler heads among actors and producers would avert another strike. Optimism gradually eroded as the two actors unions began beating up on each other.

While SAG has struck deals to allow work to continue with many independent producers, studio production that accounts for most of Hollywood employment has been hurled into limbo.