Studios Mull Pivot Back to SAG-AFTRA Negotiations as WGA Talks Stall

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Urgency grows among the studios to get back to work, but a deal with the actors’ guild may not be any easier than one with the writers

AMPTP SAG-AFTRA strike talks
SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, left, and AMPTP president Carol Lombardini. (Christopher Smith/TheWrap, Getty)

As contract talks with the Writers Guild of America have stalled, studios are considering a shift in focus to negotiating with SAG-AFTRA, whose members have joined the picket lines for the past two months.

Members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are getting restless over the lack of progress in talks with the WGA since the studios publicly released their proposal to the guild on Aug. 22, a studio insider told TheWrap. In the weeks since then, the WGA and AMPTP have both suggested the onus is on the other side to come up with a fresh counteroffer.

With a growing sense of urgency to get productions back up and running, some studio leaders feel it’s time to bring SAG-AFTRA back to the negotiating table.

“There’s a real urge to get a deal done,” one insider said. “It’s been weeks since there’s been any talks with the writers, and there’s some among the studios who don’t want to sit on their hands waiting for writers to provide another proposal and want to see if there can be progress with SAG-AFTRA instead.”

There is a feeling among the studios that a deal will be reached with SAG-AFTRA before the WGA, multiple executives and agents told TheWrap. The writers guild appears to be “digging in,” as one insider put it, on key issues such as streaming residuals and minimum writers’ room staffing.

The insiders also said there is growing pressure facing studios to get a deal done with SAG-AFTRA so that actors can promote upcoming films and TV shows this fall and lead campaigns for the upcoming awards season.

Talks about talks

As was the case when the AMPTP and WGA met face-to-face in early August, resuming contract talks first requires extensive negotiations through back channels on both sides. All that must take place before AMPTP President Carol Lombardini will formally reach out to SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher and the guild’s negotiating committee, led by chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland.

While the studios consider this shift in tactics, the process to resume talks has yet to begin. High-ranking insiders at SAG-AFTRA told TheWrap there have not been any back-channel discussions with the AMPTP about potentially resuming talks.

Lombardini and Crabtree-Ireland have talked since the actors’ strike began nine weeks ago, but only about the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan, of which they are both trustees, and the recent decision to extend health care coverage for members who would otherwise lose their eligibility due to lost work from the WGA strike which began at the start of May.

Publicly, Crabtree-Ireland has said that SAG-AFTRA remains open to resuming talks with the AMPTP at any time and without any conditions, and warned that every day the studios do not resume talks on what the guild views as a fair deal places the entertainment industry in a deeper economic hole.

“They’re dragging everyone else down with them: industry-associated businesses, union and non-union workers alike and the entire California economy… all for what?” he said at SAG-AFTRA’s rally in front of the Paramount studio lot Wednesday. “It’s not about money. It’s about making sure that labor knows its place.”

One professor estimated the cost to the California economy in the first 100 days of the writers’ strike at $3 billion. That could easily rise to $5 billion with the added effects of SAG-AFTRA stopping work.

Sticking points

Whenever AMPTP resumes talks with SAG-AFTRA, reaching a deal likely won’t be any easier than with WGA, as there are still several key sticking points between labor and management.

Foremost among them is the issue of streaming compensation. Like WGA, SAG-AFTRA has been adamant in calling for a significant change in how its members are paid to reflect the fact that streaming has become the dominant home entertainment medium.

To that end, the guild proposed a compensation model in which a portion of streaming revenue is shared among actors based on viewership data from a third party, though that model was outright rejected by the AMPTP.

Another key sticking point will be scale wages, as SAG-AFTRA is calling for an 11% increase in minimum rates for actors in the first year of the new contract and 4% increases in each of the following two years.

The guild says that such increases are necessary to allow its working-class members to keep up with inflation and rising cost of living, particularly in Los Angeles. But the AMPTP has stuck firm for decades on using pattern bargaining on labor contract terms that apply across unions, and is only offering the annual minimum increases of 5%, 4% and 3.5% that were agreed upon with the Directors Guild of America earlier this summer.

One issue that studio execs don’t think is a sticking point is artificial intelligence. While the guild has used the new technology as a rallying cry, with members accusing the studios of trying to replace human actors with AI at Wednesday’s rally, two top execs have told TheWrap that the AMPTP is confident that it can reach a fair deal with the guild on ensuring proper consent and compensation for actors when it comes to AI use.

“What the AMPTP offered SAG is much closer to being a starting point than to being a final offer,” one insider said last month. “That offer was made just before talks broke off. Once they get back to the table, I’m sure that anything that needs to be cleared up can be done with enough time.”

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.

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