Friday, August 31, 2007

Union Disunity

Today's Hollywood Reporter leads with the news that AFTRA has moved its national HQ from NY to LA, in the same building that SAG occupies. That sounds nice - the actors' unions sitting next to each other like good friends in math class, passing notes (or texting each other) when the teacher's not looking.

All very fine, except for one thing: AFTRA and SAG aren't so friendly, it turns out. Technology is one reason why: the unions have overlapping jurisdiction in primetime shows shot digitally, and AFTRA makes deals with producers that undercut SAG's rates. Indeed, I advised a filmmaker once who was shooting a film in digital, and guess which union he chose to sign with?

(By the way, if you're a producer, talk to a lawyer first before signing with any union. There are some significant benefits, but also major pitfalls if not done right.)

The tension between the two unions may undercut their unity when contract negotiations with studios, producers and networks begin next year. In fact, SAG members on the joint SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee plan to bloc vote, which would undercut AFTRA's influence on negotiations. Tit for tat? Perhaps.

Meanwhile, the two branches of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) - East and west (the West-Coast branch insists on lowercase) - have never been close, but generally play well together. Not so the IA (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) and the WGA. They each claim jurisdiction over animation writers and reality TV writers, and the words between the two unions get nasty at times. The studios, meanwhile, take the position that there are no writers in reality TV at all, which is kind of a complicated question.

As for contract negotiations, while SAG's (and the DGA's) begin next year, the WGA's have already begun. Those talks are getting nowhere so far. All three unions have big issues: home video residuals (the formula, in place for 25 years, dramatically favors the studios), compensation and residuals for digital media, and, of course, two perennials, compensation rates and pension and health insurance rates.

SAG has observers on the WGA strategy team, while the Directors Guild of America (DGA) is a bit less aggressive in its posture with the studios. At the end of the day, though, the residual formulas in the three union's agreements with the studios tend to be similar, as do some of the other provisions as well.

The bottom line though, is this: studios and networks are stocking up on scripts, shows and movies, filling their larders today as insurance against possible multiple strikes next year. Even if none materialize, a de facto strike - i.e., a work slowdown imposed by the studios - seems certain. That's because, come next year this time, the studios and networks will find their cupboards overflowing with product, and will have little need for more until they've drawn down what they've got.

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