Hollywood is holding its breath.
For the first time in a decade, a major labor dispute threatens to disrupt the nation's booming glamour capital. If it's not resolved in a matter of days, the disagreement between the nation's actors and producers could delay the start of dozens of movies and next season's fall television schedule.
Any stalemate - which would signal to moviemakers to proceed with caution in new shooting - would also likely send a tremor through California and the nation's economy. The state's TV and film entertainment industry in its broadest definition is approaching a $40 billion-a-year business.
At the heart of the dispute are "residuals," money paid to actors when programs are rerun on the networks, cable stations, and in foreign countries. The actors believe they should get a larger share of the ever-increasing profits, particularly from the exploding overseas markets. In fact, they want to double their current foreign residuals, but producers are balking.
"There hasn't been this much disagreement since the last big strike in 1988," said a senior motion-picture executive.
That strike, by the Writers Guild of America, lasted more than five months, forced millions of Americans to watch reruns through the fall, and cost the industry about half a billion dollars.
Executives on both sides of today's dispute are hoping there won't be a repeat. But studios are already speeding up the production of some movies and delaying the start of others to avoid being caught mid-shoot if a strike is called on the June 30 deadline.
Negotiators from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), which represent the actors, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers began substantive talks in early March. They hope to have a deal in place by April 2, even though the contract doesn't expire until June 30.
Known as "fast-track" negotiations, that schedule was designed to avoid the kind of studio slowdowns that traditionally take place just before the end of a major contract. It takes several months of lead time to set up a movie or television shoot, and it costs producers millions of extra dollars if they're caught mid-production when a strike is called. The goal of fast-track is to have early, intense, and confidential talks that produce an agreement well before the contract expires.
Breach of confidentiality
But almost as soon as the SAG talks began, so did the press reports about the intense differences between the two sides. Someone even leaked to the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter detailed summaries of their demands. That helped prompt the current production panic.
"We regret that confidential materials and reports on the negotiations were leaked at this early stage of the process," the top negotiators wrote in a joint statement the day the press reports broke. "We have every intention of continuing those talks, in good faith, in an effort to reach a deal by April 2 ... and to continue to respect the confidentiality agreement which prohibits any comment on the current status of the talks."
Nonetheless, unsettling rumors about a strike made the rounds at most of Hollywood's toniest restaurants.
"SAG and AFTRA executives ... are working to achieve the most favorable contract terms possible," wrote SAG national president Richard Masur to members this month. "Any rumors you may have heard about a strike are just that - rumors."
Actors in the US made a record amount of money last year - almost $1.6 billion, according to SAG figures released this month. SAG executives are quick to point out that figure represents only a 3.8 percent increase over 1996, the smallest hike in five years.
Negotiators are remaining tight-lipped. But if an agreement isn't reached by Thursday's self-imposed deadline, some real-life drama is expected to come out of Hollywood.