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Tom Hanks helps jump-start back-channel actor contract talks

March 11, 2009 |  6:58 pm

TomhanksWith a the help of Tom Hanks and some other A-list actors, representatives of the Screen Actors Guild and the studios are quietly taking another whack and trying to work out their differences.

Three weeks after the breakdown in contract negotiations, SAG leaders -- including interim Executive Director David White and chief negotiator John McGuire -- have been having informal "back-channel" talks with studio executives this week in an effort to break a logjam in talks, said people close to the situation.

In addition, Hanks and other A-listers have made calls to high-ranking executives at the major media conglomerates, urging them to find a compromise with their union. Apparently the outreach has had some effect. Several top media executives, including News Corp. President Peter Chernin and Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, have talked among themselves this week about how to resolve the dispute with SAG. Chernin and Iger played a pivotal role in helping to craft the deal with Hollywood's directors and writers.

The back-channel communications began late last week after the union took a break in its negotiations on a new commercials contract.  It's unclear, however, whether the talks will yield to a breakthrough, paving the way for a return to formal negotiations between the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios. The current contract expired nearly nine months ago and actors have been working without a contract.

The conversations are primarily focused on finding a compromise over the key sticking point: When would SAG's contract expire? SAG leaders want their contract to run through June, 2011, so the union can line up its next round of negotiations with the contracts of other Hollywood talent unions, including the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Writers Guild of America.

The studios, however, have insisted on a three-year term, which would push SAG's contract expiration into 2012.

There are signs, however, that both sides may be willing to compromise. "The CEOs are actively talking among themselves about a search for a possible solution," said one person familiar with the talks.

The deadlock has been an embarrassment to SAG's new leaders, who were installed by a moderate majority on the union's board that accused former leaders of mishandling negotiations and pushing SAG toward the brink of a strike.

-- Richard Verrier

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