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As Talks Seesaw, Where Sit WGA, SAG, and AFTRA?

The entertainment unions, eyeing 2001 negotiations with film studios and television networks over new feature film-TV contracts, seem to remain on the squeaky seesaw.

As 2000 ran its course, first the Writers Guild of America west talked of strike, while WGA East balked at that, insisting that it was ready to negotiate. The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists remained low-key, with leaders whispering that they were open to a new film-TV pact negotiation even as they battled the ad industry through a six-month strike over a new commercials contract. Meanwhile, the WGA and other unions publicly supported SAG and AFTRA's spot-pact walkout.

Throughout the year, studios and networks began a process of speed-up production, evidently preparing to stockpile product in case of strikes. They also began hearing reports of possible strikes' negative economic effect on Hollywood's economy and studios' stock prices.

By the end of October, SAG and AFTRA had settled its nasty commercials contract issue. Then the WGAw and East—whose members had approved a "pattern of demands" for a new pact—both seemed to lean toward walkout talk on the film-TV pact. Then they met with SAG and AFTRA leaders apparently to plan some type of coordinated negotiation strategy. The WGA contract ends May 1, SAG and AFTRA's pacts end June 30.

Then the unions began meeting with studio heads for informal talks. And by December, SAG said it would not meet in early talks, which the studios and networks have encouraged, because early talks in the past have led to contracts settled without strikes.

But then in early January, word came that the WGA, which at one point had been talking strike, decided it was ready for early negotiations, perhaps as early as Jan. 22.

At that point, studio execs responded that the WGA's "pattern of demands" would cost the industry more than $2.2 billion in added costs over the contract's three-year period, if the impact of the actors' and directors' new pacts were included. That's more than the 14 major film and TV firms figured they could garner in profits, they said.

The WGA quickly humbugged the studios' figures, calling them "hyperinflated."

"We hope the companies are not putting out these groundless numbers to paint the guild's proposals as outrageous and to justify their own refusal to make a deal in the upcoming negotiations," the WGA observed.

So, as the WGA and producers jockey for negotiation position, where does that leave SAG and AFTRA?

When SAG had announced it would not take part in early talks, a SAG insider called the move "brinkmanship strategy." That evidently means the actors want to sit back and see how the producers, already clearly nervous—as seen in their push for a product stockpile—handle the silent treatment.

But there's more to it than that. A major thorn in SAG's upcoming talks is a three-year-old issue called a residuals study. The unions and producers agreed to it at the end of the last film-TV pact talks: a deal on basic cable and foreign TV residuals in which the two sides would conduct a two-year study of the underlying economics of the TV industry with an eye toward increasing cable and foreign residuals in the upcoming contract talks.

In '98, that little deal led to nearly one third of SAG and AFTRA voters to vote against the then-new film-TV pact. Those voters had wanted a residuals deal written into the '98 contract. SAG's current leadership consists of many members peeved over the residuals study. And, the truth is, they're still peeved.

The studios announced in December they had provided the unions with the residuals study material. But Greg Krizman, with SAG's national communications department, grumbled to Back Stage on Monday, "They gave us information for us to complete the study. They gave us tons of data which we have to crunch and complete on 30,000 different shows."

That negates any immediate talks on the residuals issue, Krizman said, "but we've also said we're not adverse to beginning talks on other issues."

Still, a SAG source close to the upcoming negotiations told Back Stage this week that the producers' action on residuals represented a "hypocrisy" on their part of saying they were ready to negotiate "while trying to tie our hands" with an incomplete study and mountains of data.

So, these early-year comments by the producers, the WGA, and SAG point to touchy times ahead indeed, making the feature film-TV negotiations appear to be the continuing dramatic serial to watch in 2001.

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