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In Tentative Broadway Deal, Birth of a New Era?

The first thing that stands out about the tentative agreement on the new Production Contract announced today by Actors' Equity Association and the Broadway League is its length--39 months. Why, one may ask, have the sides measured the duration of the agreement as if it were a toddler? Perhaps because it may represent the birth of a new era, for Equity specifically and the actors' labor movement in general.

It isn't just the usual bromides touting cooperation and flexibility on the news release from Equity national executive director John Connolly and league president Charlotte St. Martin, though the tone of the rhetoric, at least on the printed page, is a welcome relief from the bile currently oozing in Hollywood. (Connolly referred to a "creative partnership" and "innovative approach," while St. Martin mentioned a "collaborative spirit.")

It's difficult to say much of anything about the deal with any certainty, because no one was available to comment today. However, Equity and league representatives indicated to Back Stage before talks began in April that they were going to fight for what they wanted, but that they were also willing to listen. Proof of this equanimity came during the middle of the talks, when a source told Back Stage that Equity listened patiently when producers floated the idea of actors doing promotional shorts for the Web, for free. Had this been presented during talks in Encino, Calif., a strike vote would have been taken in five minutes--and probably been approved.

As it turns out, promotional work in new media was one of the few details announced today, and actors will receive some sort of compensation. "[There is] more flexibility in publicity and promotion, allowing producers to pursue new avenues of marketing shows to a wider audience through digital and traditional means, while providing actors a monetary acknowledgment of their participation and rights."

From that, however, three questions arise: 1) How many dollars are in "monetary acknowledgment?" 2) Does that cash go to the individual actor or into Equity's health and retirement plans? 3) After it is determined "how much" and "to whom," an actor's next question would be, "For what, exactly?" The term "participation" would seem to connote the time and effort spent in making promotions; "rights" would seem to connote an individual's image or likeness and how it is used and protected.

Which brings us--unavoidably--to the goings-on in Hollywood, where AFTRA and SAG have struggled with likeness rights and clips consent during three months of arduous negotiations. AFTRA and producers compromised on this issue in their tentative deal--for all new content, actors have to negotiate to keep their consent rights. For existing content, a mechanism for consent and compensation will be developed once the AFTRA contract is ratified. SAG has objected to this provision since the broad outlines of AFTRA's prime-time TV contract were announced in late May. Although SAG came up for the framework of the compromise in earlier talks, the guild insists the safeguards for protecting actors' images are insufficient.

As far as Equity members are concerned, the devil will be in the details, and there is no indication in the brief news release about what exactly the two sides mean when they say "publicity and promotion." Are they only talking about current and upcoming productions, or will there be some sort of marketing of Broadway's vast library? (There is a treasure trove of Broadway's glorious past--and of questionable legality--on YouTube.) These clips could be a new revenue stream, but one that will require the union's cooperation to develop. Further, archival video of a Broadway production might involve AFTRA's jurisdiction as well. Given that Equity national executive director John Connolly is AFTRA's former president, perhaps the two unions are working something out, or perhaps they have already.

But enough of new media, what about the old? The two sides have, for the second consecutive contract, revised the terms surrounding tours. In 2004, talks grew incredibly contentious over this issue until the two sides worked out a compromise. For successful Broadway shows that tour, Equity members are paid at the full price. For shows that were less successful on the Main Stem, Equity members take less, depending on various formulas, with the understanding that compensation for actors and stage managers would increase if a tour exceeded profit expectations. Still, the two sides clashed in 2006 over nonunion tours of blockbusters such as Hairspray and The Producers. (An arbitrator eventually ruled for the union.)

Today, the two sides announced a "revised touring arrangement ... to promote League touring productions that will provide more employment for Equity members." Equity could have agreed to a wage freeze or wage cut for some classes of tours, while the league might have guaranteed that there would be more union tours (or fewer non-union ones).

Equity and the league began talks April 18. It isn't often that two sides negotiate for 2 1/2 months and still need two extra days to get a deal. That, more than anything, points to this being a complex, and perhaps groundbreaking, contract.

--Andrew Salomon

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