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Actors and studios said to be close to new contract

April 5, 2009 |  9:19 pm

After weeks of back-channel talks, Hollywood's biggest actor union and the major studios appear to have broken their logjam and could be close to reaching an agreement on a new three-year contract, according to people close to the situation.

The agreement would come as a breakthrough for the Screen Actors Guild, whose members have been working without a contract for nine months as various attempts at negotiations with the studios collapsed amid acrimony and frustration. Talks picked up again after the union's former chief negotiator was ousted by moderates who took control of SAG's board in elections late last year.

Only a month ago, as the economy worsened and more workers in the entertainment industry found themselves without jobs and studios made cutbacks, many in Hollywood despaired the two sides would ever be able to resolve their differences.

Now SAG's interim executive director David White and a group of top entertainment executives are "very close" to resolving most of the remaining sticking points that caused negotiations to break off in February, according to people familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations.

White has spent the last four weeks meeting privately with several top Hollywood executives, including Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger and News Corp. President Peter Chernin to end the standoff. Iger and Chernin played a pivotal role in helping to craft new contracts last year with Hollywood's directors and writers. They and other studio executives began talking among themselves last month about finding a way to end the impasse after receiving calls from big-name actors including Tom Hanks and George Clooney.

SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said it was premature to comment about a breakthrough. "SAG's leadership remains engaged in ongoing efforts to secure a fair deal for SAG members," she said.

Although some points remain at issue, the agreement is said to include a compromise over the most contentious issue: when SAG's new contract would expire.

SAG leaders have insisted that their new contract run through June 2011 so that the union can line up its next round of negotiations with the expiring 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.

If studios agree to SAG's demand for a shorter contract term, the actors union would likely have to give up something in return.

SAG chief negotiator John McGuire, who just negotiated a new commercials contract for SAG members, is expected to present the outlines of an agreement to the guild's negotiating task force Tuesday, which could set the stage for the return of formal negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the studios but is dominated by heads of the major media companies.

The union's national board could vote on a final contract when it meets April 18.

White and McGuire are under heavy pressure to deliver a contract to the union's 120,000 members. They were recently 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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