Hollywood actors, studios agree to extend talks

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Screen Actors Guild and major Hollywood studios agreed on Wednesday to extend their contract talks by a week, allowing more time to narrow what the studios called “significant gaps” after eight days of negotiation.

Despite those differences, the extension marked another sign of progress during the past two days, heightening hopes for continued labor peace after a tumultuous 100-day strike by screenwriters that ended in February.

The actors’ union, outlining its main contract proposals for members on its Web site on Tuesday, omitted two key demands seen as stumbling blocks to a settlement -- higher “residual” payments for DVDs and Internet gains that go beyond the deal achieved by striking writers.

“I take that as a signal that they took those issues off the table,” said entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, a former Writers Guild of America co-counsel with ties to both sides in the labor talks.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) talks began on April 15 under a two-week deadline. SAG’s smaller sister, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), was scheduled to open separate negotiations on April 28.

But eight days into the talks, the actors’ union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) issued a joint statement saying they had agreed to extend their bargaining session for a third week, through May 2.

The two sides, which have adhered to a strict media blackout so far, declined further comment.

But an AMPTP statement about the extension posted on its Web site said: “At this time there remain significant gaps between the two parties, and we hope to use the extra time to narrow these gaps.”

The statement also said AFTRA had agreed to postpone the start of its talks until May 5 to accommodate SAG’s extension.

“It is a very encouraging step. It signals to me that there’s been some progress and anticipation of further progress in the talks,” Handel said, adding the move “really increases the likelihood of a promptly negotiated deal.”

SAG’s current three-year contract covering 120,000 film and television actors expires on June 30, a date being treated by Hollywood as a de facto strike deadline that is already disrupting the film industry.

Movie studios have generally avoided launching productions they cannot complete by then, creating lingering uncertainty in a town still jittery from the writers strike that shut down much of the TV industry and idled thousands of workers.

That walkout, Hollywood’s worst labor clash in 20 years, was settled after the two sides reached a deal giving writers more money for film and TV work distributed over the Internet.

SAG leaders had said going into the talks that they wanted to improve on the writers’ new-media deal while seeking higher DVD residuals -- a demand the writers were forced to drop after the studios refused to budge.

With those issues seemingly off the table, SAG leaders are still insisting on better wages for middle-income actors and compensation for what amounts to forced commercial endorsements made through product placement in TV shows and movies.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and John O’Callaghan