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Strike-weary L.A. readies for actor labor talks

The industry remains on edge as leaders of the Screen Actors Guild have said publicly they will push for an even better deal than the one writers got.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a Century Plaza Hotel ballroom earlier this week, 600 people gathered to hear Hollywood heavyweights tally the fallout from the writers strike.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the hotel, union officials representing movie and TV actors huddled to finalize a battle plan for their upcoming contract talks.

Hollywood is hoping their story has a different ending.

Or better yet, a complete rewrite of the plot — one without a strike.

“It seems completely out of the question that there would be,” said Ashley Jones, a star on CBS’ daytime drama “The Bold and The Beautiful.”

“But,” she continued, “you never know.”

With new shows just starting to return to TV, the entertainment industry finally seems to be shaking off the devastating impact of the 100-day strike by the Writers Guild of America that ended Feb. 12 and took an estimated $2.5 billion toll on the local economy. But the industry remains on edge as leaders of the Screen Actors Guild have said publicly they will push for an even better deal than the one writers got.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios, has urged the two unions representing actors to begin bargaining by April 1 — three months before the current contract is set to expire on June 30. And pressure for a speedy resolution has come from A-list actors Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, who took out ads in trade publications calling for talks to start immediately.

However, Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg and Executive Director Doug Allen — a former pro football linebacker — don’t seem ready to sign on the dotted line.

The two men “are equally as assertive as the writers guild leadership,” said entertainment industry lawyer Jonathan Handel, a former writers guild associate counsel who has closely followed industry contract talks.

The tough stance of the Screen Actors Guild has been tempered by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which has shown a willingness to compromise, Handel said. Both guilds declined requests for interviews, saying their leaders were immersed in preparations for the talks, and the alliance has not commented on contract issues.

Digital media, DVD residuals on the line
A key issue for actors is expected to be compensation for TV shows and movies delivered via digital media. Writers and directors also stressed that demand in their separate negotiations earlier this year.

Those unions won key victories, including jurisdiction over programs produced for distribution online and new and better compensation for shows and movies streamed or downloaded online.

Other issues for actors may involve DVD residuals and forced endorsements by actors of products placed in films or on TV shows.

Actor Steve Blackwood, a former regular on NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” said a cut of future digital-media money is worth a fight.

“In five to 10 years, everybody’s going to be watching TV shows on the Internet,” Blackwood said. “If we settle too quickly because no one wants to strike again, then actors will really beef later if they find out the union settled for less than they should get.”

Blackwood wants to see union leaders fight hard at the bargaining table but conceded most actors who went unemployed during the writers strike would like to see a quick contract deal. The boards of the two unions plan to meet Saturday to finalize their bargaining plan and possibly set a start date for the talks.

On Thursday, a committee that reviewed member surveys on pay and benefits made a recommendation to be considered at the meeting.

The 120,000-member Screen Actors Guild represents actors in movies, TV and other media. The 70,000-member TV and radio federation represents, among others, actors, singers, announcers and journalists.

Leaders of the unions have already met informally with studio executives who proved crucial to closing the earlier deals with directors and writers. But the meetings so far haven’t been substantive, according to two people close to the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

Greg Daniels, executive producer of NBC’s “The Office,” said the actors unions could see this as a good time to press their case.

Movie studios were expected to be in a de facto strike mode as of April, unwilling to start filming new projects that won’t be wrapped before July 1 — the date of a possible walkout.

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Robert David Hall, a star on CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” who recently served as a Screen Actors Guild board member, joined writers picket lines while his show was knocked out of production by the strike. There is no appetite for another walkout, he said, but actors must put their faith in union leaders.

“Nobody can guarantee there will or won’t be a strike. My sense is there won’t be, but you have to go through the process,” Hall said.

The industry’s wariness was evident at Tuesday’s panel discussion at the Century Plaza Hotel organized by the Hollywood Radio & Television Society.

Only prominent entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren, who was credited with helping resolve the writers strike, answered when the moderator asked if anyone was concerned about a possible actors strike.

“My short version is that if the parties involved in the negotiations stay in the room instead of going to the press,” Ziffren said, “we’ll get it done and we’ll get it done well.”