(Recasts; adds details)
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, May 28 (Reuters) - The Screen Actors Guild and major studios returned to the bargaining table on Wednesday from a three-week recess in contract talks after Hollywood’s smaller performers union came to terms with producers on a new labor deal.
The tentative accord between studios and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or AFTRA, raised hopes yet again that labor peace in the world’s entertainment capital might yet prevail after a 100-day screenwriters strike that ended in February.
AFTRA reached compromises on two issues viewed as major stumbling blocks by both unions — obtaining contract coverage for original made-for-Internet shows and actors’ consent for the online display of TV clips in which they appear.
But it remained unclear whether AFTRA’s deal might form the basis of a settlement with the larger, more militant Screen Actors Guild, or whether SAG would see its bargaining position undercut by its sister union.
The two unions had negotiated their main TV contracts together for nearly three decades. But AFTRA decided to go it alone earlier this year after long-simmering tensions with SAG reached a boiling point.
The AFTRA deal, governing actors’ employment on about a dozen prime-time TV shows, is still subject to approval by the union’s governing board and a ratification vote by its 70,000 members. But there was little doubt it would win endorsement.
The spotlight turns now to talks with SAG, which represents 120,000 actors and whose contract covers the lion’s share of prime-time television and the film industry as a whole. About 40,000 of SAG’s members also belong to AFTRA.
The contracts for both actors unions expire June 30, and Hollywood remains on edge from the 14-week writers strike that paralyzed much of the TV industry, derailed various film projects and idled thousands of production workers.
SAG, which played a pivotal supporting role in the writers strike, has not sought the authorization of its members to call for a work stoppage of its own. However, the industry already has slipped into de facto strike mode, with studios starting to stockpile TV episodes and unwilling to launch work on movies that could be affected by a walkout.
The AFTRA settlement capped a marathon 16-hour bargaining session that ended with a handshake at about 3 a.m., following 17 days of negotiations stretching back to May 7, a day after separate talks with SAG hit a stalemate.
SAG president Alan Rosenberg, elected in 2005 on a pledge to take a harder line in labor negotiations, said his negotiators needed to “analyze and evaluate” the AFTRA accord before forming an opinion on it.
Entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, a former Writers Guild of America co-counsel with ties to both sides in the talks, said the AFTRA deal “puts SAG in a bind.”
“Management is going to effectively play one union off of the other,” he said, adding that even if SAG finds AFTRA’s compromises on some issues acceptable, “it’s not going to come easy because SAG has taken a harder line.”
Another Hollywood insider close to the negotiations said Rosenberg “should be happy that we’ve solved what we thought were the two biggest problems” — consent for Internet clips and contract coverage for webisodes.
The deal also includes increases in the “residual” payments earned by actors from Internet downloads of TV shows and for online streaming of those programs, as well as higher wages for work in traditional media.
But there are no provisions to raise the residuals from DVD sales — a key demand of SAG at the outset of its labor talks in April and one the studios have staunchly resisted. (Editing by Dan Whitcomb)