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Act III: Comedy, Tragedy, or 'Nashville'?

Now that AFTRA appears to have a deal, it would seem that we have reached the top of the third act of Hollywood's latest epic, The Year of Living Laboriously. Act I comprised the writers' strike and its resolution; Act II had the SAG-AFTRA meltdown and AFTRA getting a deal on its own; the SAG negotiations should provide the climax.

Aristotle Altman So far, however, this has been no tidy Aristotelian drama, but rather a sprawling Altman film, with the static of overlapping chatter more informative than the actual words being spoken. Nevertheless, a few things are starting to come into focus.

* SAG would seem to be hemmed in on the new-media front by the four major deals struck so far: the DGA and WGA agreements, as well as AFTRA's Net Code and prime-time pacts. The patterns have been firmly set: a doubling, more or less, on residuals paid for downloads; residuals for online streaming of TV shows; jurisdiction in certain work created directly for new media; and absolutely no increase whatsoever on DVD residuals. Expect nothing radically different in SAG's new-media gains.

However, according to entertainment attorney Jonathan Handel, SAG could achieve a breakthrough on product integration. He indicated that SAG has very real concerns--actors participating in a show with advertising worked into a script could be limited in their ability to get endorsement work for competing products (he cited the famous Coke/Pepsi example); and (all together now) in the age of TiVo, companies are turning to product placement/integration as a new revenue source, and it's understandable actors want a piece of the action.

He also said a small gain for SAG in product integration would be a way for the union's leadership to secure a political victory, and he indicated the AMPTP might not be averse to letting them have one--much the same way the writers got a little extra in their new-media deal after going on strike for three months. (As opposed to the DGA, which settled fairly quickly and easily and provided the framework for the existing new-media models, the writers got a little extra in certain new-media terms in the third year of its deal.) It's not clear, though, that the producers would be overly concerned with throwing SAG a bone.

* There seems to be a subtle move toward splintering actors away from the union, at least in some areas. On the clips-consent issue, AFTRA and the AMPTP agreed that from July 1 onward, performers must negotiate their own deals at the time they are hired. This essentially means most actors will have to sacrifice their consent--though with certain safeguards in place--or not take the job. Without any blanket union protection on this issue, actors' status as independent contractors will be reinforced yet again. The same could happen with the force majeure issue, which, THR's Leslie Simmons writes, the studios want to alter. (Force majeure is a clause in a lot of contracts that allows producers to terminate deals due to matters beyond their control, such as strikes and earthquakes.) As the rules currently exist, studios have the right to terminate deals but they have to negotiate compensation with the unions. Producers now want the compensation issue to be negotiated on a performer-by-performer basis, which would seem to put most actors into another take-it-or-leave-it position.

Holter Graham, president of AFTRA's New York local, told Strike Watch earlier this week on the consent-clip issue that "there are already about four take-it-or-leave-its in every contract," and that adding another one was no big deal. If the studios get progress on force majeure, would that bring the total up to six?

Then again, the amount of money in the clips business is, if anything, negligible, and no one knows the future value of it. Force majeure is an issue that rarely affects actors, and if workaday performers lose its protection, will they even notice? Seriously, how big a deal is it? (Those are not necessarily rhetorical questions. Feel free to comment and disabuse Strike Watch of its blase attitude.) Also, AFTRA secured hefty pay increases in traditional media--about 3.5 percent per year for the next three years--and it's in those areas where blanket union protection is most effective, because that's where the real money is. For now, anyway.

* Chances are there won't be a strike. Dave McNary writes in today's Variety that SAG has yet to seek a strike authorization vote; that securing the necessary 75 percent won't be easy; and that even though the writers received more than 90 percent on their authorization vote, it took them 18 days to complete the process. With SAG's TV/film contract expiring June 30, officials would need to start right now just to have an answer before the deadline. It's hard to imagine SAG scheduling such a vote, the outcome of which would be revealed when talks are at their most intense. It seems the union stands to lose much more than it would gain.

You have just read the rough outline of Back Stage's next News Analysis. For further details, pick up the June 5 issue. To provide information, comment below or contact [email protected].

--Andrew Salomon

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