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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood's two actors' unions reached a contract deal with advertisers on Wednesday, creating an opening for the larger of the pair to jump-start stalled labor talks with film and television studios.
The Screen Actors Guild, the biggest U.S. actors' union with 120,000 members, is still seeking a deal covering film and TV performers to replace a former contract with Hollywood's major studios that expired on June 30, 2008.
"With this (advertisers) deal presumably done, assuming ratification by the unions, SAG can turn its full attention now to its most significant agreement of all," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney monitoring the talks.
SAG rejected the studios' "last, best and final" offer in February, then started negotiations for a separate contract covering commercials and advertisements. SAG bargained jointly with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents 70,000 actors, performers and TV journalists.
The two unions began negotiations with the Joint Policy Committee of the American Association of Advertising Agencies on February 23 and reached a deal in New York on Wednesday.
AFTRA reached a separate deal with film and TV studios last year but SAG held out, initially seeking greater concessions on items such as pay for members' work on the Internet.
Industry sources have said SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, have now reached tentative deals on pay for Internet-related work, but in February the two groups found themselves at odds again over the length of a new contract.
The AMPTP wants a three-year deal to start when the new contract is signed, and SAG has insisted on a retroactive June 30, 2008, start date and an expiration in mid-2011, when the Writers Guild of America and AFTRA will be up for new deals.
If SAG joined with either of those two unions in future talks, it would boost all the unions' negotiating leverage, some industry watchers believe.
Handel said SAG and AFTRA secured an attractive contract offer from advertisers by working together.
Representatives from SAG and the AMPTP declined to comment on how the advertising deal might affect the stalled talks for a film and TV contract. An AMPTP spokesman said no new negotiations with SAG are scheduled.
When the studios gave their last offer to SAG on February 19, the AMPTP said it would remain open for 60 days.
Handel said SAG and the AMPTP need to reach a deal shortly, because the union will soon begin nominating members for leadership elections, and SAG candidates will not want to compromise on a contract while they are campaigning.
"The clock's ticking; I mean it's April now, you really have April, May and part of June to make a deal," he said.
SAG leaders in recent months squabbled internally about the union's negotiating stance with the AMPTP, with the union's moderates ousting hardline chief negotiator Doug Allen in January and forming a new task force to handle talks.
The proposed contract must go to the unions' rank-and-file for ratification, and if that happens the deal will expire March 31, 2012. It provides a 5.1 percent increase in wages and a $21 million contribution raise to health and pension plans.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Walsh