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SAG and AFTRA's Early Talks Abuse WGA?

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So much for solidarity. Or so it would seem.

For the first time in recent memory, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) have tossed aside the industry's screenwriters to begin their own early negotiations with producers. SAG and AFTRA opened talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) this past Tuesday at the producers' offices in Encino, Calif.

Traditionally, the actors have let the writers settle their contract first because their pact expires first. The Writers Guild of America's (WGA) agreement ends May 1. SAG and AFTRA's pacts are up June 30. But SAG suddenly said last week that it would be quickly opening the AMPTP bargaining this week.

SAG also let it be known that representatives of the WGA and the Directors Guild of America would be on hand to monitor the negotiations. That's about all SAG has said about what it expects to happen at the talks. The guild has released nothing about the proposals that it's taking to the table, except that it and AFTRA's national boards have approved the packages. It hasn't released the names of members of its negotiating committee.

In the past, SAG had been more open about its plans, with both sides even releasing their proposals—during William Daniels' administration as SAG national president—letting both sides' members and the public become aware of the issues, and also giving profile to the union members who were on the bargaining panels. But with the coming of Robert Pisano, SAG's national executive director-CEO, and under the rule of Melissa Gilbert, SAG's national president, an air of silence has taken hold at the guild, to the point that board members aren't allowed to speak to the press about board matters.

So it's no real surprise that SAG leaders have kept mum about what they want from producers. (For an overview of possible negotiation issues, see Page 1 story "SAG, AFTRA, AMPTP Meet.")

What is surprising: The usually vociferous WGA has remained mute on the SAG-AFTRA preemption. The writers have publicly stated their list of demands, including giving it to members to vote on and announcing the vote. They've also listed committee members who would be involved in the bargaining.

Yet there's not a public peep from the WGA on SAG and AFTRA's action. Cheryl Rhoden, the WGA's communications director, when asked if her guild had any response to SAG and AFTRA's early talks, responded only, "No, we're not commenting on it." Asked if the actors had set a new precedent in their move, she said only, "It hasn't occurred in my tenure, and that's 18 years."

So Rhoden and the WGA haven't said they're upset about the actors' move. But they haven't said they support it either.

Considering the state of the Writers Guild at this point, it's hard to see how they can be happy about it. The writers recently saw their elected president of the WGA west, Victoria Riskin, forced to resign, declared in a WGA investigation to have been ineligible at the time of last year's election. Almost immediately, they saw an internal challenge to the eligibility of her replacement, Charles Holland. To try to steady matters going into the negotiations on a new pact, the WGAw board appointed Daniel Petrie Jr. as a v.p. Petrie was WGAw president from '97-'99.

Then, as the writers continued to attempt to balance their ship, SAG and AFTRA suddenly swept by, leaving the scribes in their wake.

The writers can't help but be concerned that the actors' negotiations might sabotage their own efforts at a stronger contract. The writers have publicly stated their demand for more residuals from sales of digital video disks (DVDs). Writers received only $18 million of $11 billion in DVD sales last year. SAG has no specific figure for how much actors received, because DVD income is figured in with videocassette residuals.

It will be interesting to watch where SAG goes with the DVD issue, particularly with Pisano helming the negotiations. Pisano is a director in Netflix, an online DVD mail-order company involved in revenue-sharing deals with major Hollywood film studios that are members of the AMPTP. But Pisano has said the relationship doesn't involve a conflict of interest because both he and the studios only hold options in the firm, and that the business actually benefits SAG members because the revenue-sharing relationship "becomes part of the base for calculation of residuals for actors."

If the actors come out with anything but a strong contract—from DVDs, to an increase in minimums, to health and pension fund contributions—it could hurt the WGA's efforts going into their talks to get the highest numbers possible. Before SAG and AFTRA's move—with domestic theatrical box office having risen from $7.7 billion to $9.5 billion over the term of the actors and writers' present contracts, and cable and broadcast network sales at new highs—the WGA was expecting to get those numbers.

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