Hollywood cuts a deal to avert bit-part actors' strike

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The threat of disruption to some of America's most popular television shows appeared to have been averted yesterday, after a new deal was thrashed out to improve conditions for less famous actors.

After a year-long dispute in which strike action was threatened, the studios and actors unions agreed a new three-year deal after lengthy talks in Los Angeles.

Shelby Scott, president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), which, along with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), represents 135,000 actors in the dispute, said: "Our main goal in these negotiations was to help the middle-income actor – the actor that you all recognize but sometimes you just don't know their names. They are the backbone of this industry and I think we have helped them. I think they will be pleased when they learn the details of this pact."

The deal is the second to have been settled in Hollywood in recent weeks. At the beginning of June, the Writers Guild of America settled its own new contract, securing a 3.5 per cent pay rise for writers. The deal struck for the actors is said to be "in that ballpark".

The specific details of the deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios and networks, were not released. However, it is understood to include higher pay for acting work in programmes re-broadcast on cable television, increased contributions to actor health plans and higher salaries for stunt co-ordinators and television guest stars. The SAG's president, William Daniels, said the arrangement was "equitable for both sides".

Union negotiators said their top concern was increasing pay for members who earn between $30,000 (£21,000) and $70,000 a year. Only about 2 per cent of the Guild's membership, which includes multi-millionaires such as Jack Nicholson and Russell Crowe, earn more than $100,000 a year.

John Connolly, chairman of the actors' negotiating group told the Los Angeles Times: "This was not just some abstract chess game. It was a gut-wrenching game of poker where you had to both feel your passion and then control it in order not to give away your hand at all. The personal feelings of fear and worry and triumph were extraordinary, and they all hit at once when we took that vote."

While the actors' unions never called for a vote on strike action, the threat was always there. Any strike action would have cost millions of dollars to the Californian economy as well as disrupting production schedules to many of the nation's favourite television shows. Uncertainty over the negotiations prompted studios to accelerate shooting on films currently in production.

Last year, the actors' unions staged a six-month strike by actors who appeared in commercials and it has driven an estimated $1bn (£710m) worth of work overseas.

The new actors' deal must now be approved by the governing boards of the two unions and ratified by the members.