Screen actors up against producer tactics

Hollywood producers, like many other bosses, are showing that they are all to willing to use the current economic crisis to squash attempts by the workers to better their living conditions.

As the Screen Actors Guild membership, now working more than six months under an expired contract, considers whether to grant its leadership strike authorization, the producers are actively inserting themselves into the decision-making process.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, is calling on actors to listen to union “moderates,” who want to avoid another Hollywood strike.

The producers issued a statement Jan. 6 that said, “The 100-day writers strike – which resulted in the writers receiving the same terms that the Directors Guild of America achieved without a strike – cost our economy $2.5 billion. A SAG strike would cost the working families who depend on our industry even more, at a time when everyone is already under extreme pressure by the unprecedented national economic crisis.” The producers’ statement ignored the fact that it was their refusal to extend to the writers the terms that they eventually gave the directors that triggerd last year’s strike in the first place.

SAG’s chief negotiator, Doug Allen, is working hard to build support for a strike authorization. He said, “SAG needs this authorization even if just for purposes of leveraging a stronger position in negotiations with the producers.”

He rejected outright the idea that there is less justification in asking members to vote for strike authorization in the current economic climate than at any other time.

“There is no good time to consider a strike,” he declared in an e-mail Jan.2. “But tough economic times are when it is most important to be unified to resist the studios and networks’ effort to obliterate contract provisions in our future work.”

The SAG was actually founded in tough economic times, during the height of the Great Depression.

Allen also said, “Our employers are publicly held companies with currently unhappy shareholders whose investments in studios and networks have been severely reduced in value as a result of the Wall Street crash. Our employers will respond by cutting costs wherever possible. Our only protection from the cost-cutting hatchet is a strong contract.”

SAG had originally planned to provide strike authorization ballots to its members Jan. 2, but pushed that date back because of concern that interference by the producers might be having an effect.

During the Christmas holidays a group within the union opposed to strike authorization, Unite for Strength, announced that it plans to replace the Guild’s negotiating committee, Allen included, at the upcoming national board meeting scheduled for Jan. 12-13. The group claims that it has a majority on SAG’s national board.

SAG members have been working without a new contract since June 30, when the union turned down the producers’ “final offer.” The union was particularly angry about what the producers were offering in terms of agreements regarding new media. They offered the actors no minimums, no residuals and wanted to reserve their right to produce without the union whenever they wanted to in the new media area.

“The producers’ proposal made it impossible for actors to earn a living from work in new media,” Allen declared.

New media issues, of course, are of enormous interest to unionized actors.

Even as the battle goes on over strike authorization Netflix, the leading DVD mail-order rental company, has announced a partnership with LG Electronics to stream movies directly into subscribers’ homes. Netflix will use internet connections to allow subscribers – who pay about $10 per month – to watch films from its vast libraries on specially formatted LG television sets. The announcement has major implications in the possible actors’ strike because one the the major impediments to a new deal is the union’s refusal to accept tiny residual payments to its members for films and TV shows downloaded from the net.

Hollywood continues, however, to rake in unprecedented profits from its regular movie business both in the United States and abroad.

While U.S. movie goers spent $9.78 billion on tickets last year, Hollywood revenue from the rest of the world actually surpassed that figure, soaring to a record $9.9 billion. That represents a 4 percent increase over 2007 and means in the past two years foreign box office receipts have grown by a hefty 15 percent.