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By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Nov 20 (Reuters) - After weeks of shuttle diplomacy, a U.S. federal mediator brought labor negotiators for major Hollywood studios and the Screen Actors Guild back together on Thursday for their first meeting in four months.
It was unclear whether the session would end up being a formality or lead to a breakthrough in contract talks that have been deadlocked in large part over how much actors should be paid for content delivered over the Internet.
Representatives for the studios and SAG both declined to comment except to confirm the two sides were meeting.
At least one Hollywood labor expert suggested the stalemate could drag into early next year, with the possibility of a strike threat that would overshadow Oscar season.
The studios cut off negotiations with SAG negotiators on June 30 when they presented the guild with a “final” offer, hours before the expiration of their old contract covering 120,000 union performers in prime-time television and movies.
Management’s latest offer essentially mirrors terms approved by several other Hollywood unions, most recently a deal reached on Wednesday between producers and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE.
SAG leaders have held out for a better deal, while the studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, have refused to budge.
The two sides last met face to face on July 16 for a two-hour session that yielded no perceptible progress.
The mediator stepped in last month at the behest of the actors union after SAG’s national governing board voted to seek third-party intervention. At the time, the board declared it would ask union members to authorize a strike if mediation failed to achieve a settlement.
A strike authorization would require 75 percent approval of members who cast a vote.
That may be a tough threshold to achieve in light of the U.S. economic slump and leftover strike fatigue from a tumultuous 14-week work stoppage staged by the Writers Guild of America in 2007 and 2008, with strong support from SAG.
The WGA walkout idled thousands of Hollywood workers, brought prime-time TV production to a virtual halt and cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $3 billion. It also forced cancellation of the Golden Globe Awards show and threatened to derail the Oscars before a settlement was reached in February.
Jonathan Handel, a former WGA counsel, said the current labor dispute might drag into January and that SAG could seek greater leverage by timing a strike authorization vote to coincide with the approach of the Oscars, slated for Feb. 22.
In that case, he said, “The big question is whether the studios are going to blink, or are the A-listers with SAG going to stand behind the union or attend the Oscars regardless of whether the union boycotts them.”
In preparing for Thursday’s meeting, mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez met twice separately with the studios and SAG.
Their encounter comes as tensions have flared on another Hollywood labor front. The WGA on Thursday accused the studios of reneging on terms of their 9-month-old labor pact.
The WGA says producers have failed to pay newly negotiated residuals — fees for reusing writers’ work — on all Internet downloads of TV shows produced after 1977 and movies produced after 1971. The union has sought arbitration of the matter.
The studios disputed the WGA’s charges, saying the contract requires that the new residual rates be paid only on such content released in new media after the effective date of the new agreement. (Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Peter Cooney)