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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A year of labor unrest in Hollywood is seen ending next week when the largest actors' union is expected to approve a new contract with film and TV studios in a close vote, industry watchers said on Wednesday.
The Screen Actors Guild, which represents 120,000 actors, remains sharply divided over the labor deal ahead of a June 9 vote count. But many members fear a repeat of the 2007/2008 writers strike that cost the Los Angeles area economy as much as $3 billion.
Filmmaking already has slowed this past year as producers worried about starting production then being forced to halt if new labor strife developed. Location movie production in Los Angeles hit a record low in 2009's first quarter, falling 56 percent from 2008, according to permit issuer Film L.A.
SAG's old labor contract expired on June 30, 2008, although actors are still working under its terms. But now Hollywood wants to get fully back to work and remove any uncertainty over a possible work stoppage, the experts said.
"I think it will be ratified, but I think they (detractors) will be able to drive the (yes vote) percentage down pretty dramatically," Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney who has tracked the contract talks.
Sam Freed, a high-ranking member of SAG's national board of directors and a supporter of the contract, said he is optimistic it will win approval.
"It's important that we get this contract signed and we move on," Freed said.
He is part of a moderate SAG faction supporting the deal that calls for a 3 percent wage increase this year, 3.5 percent next year and coverage for work done for the Internet. They say it is the best deal possible in a recession, and further gains can be achieved in 2011 during the next round of labor talks.
But "no" vote hardliners, led by SAG president Alan Rosenberg, say the deal lacks adequate pay for work that goes to the Web and forces actors to give up too many demands.
While he remains hopeful, Rosenberg admits his side has fewer resources than moderates to campaign against the deal.
"We're basically a band of guerrilla fighters working on a shoestring budget, but we're doing the right thing," he said. "This deal is a backbreaker."
To convince actors to approve the deal, SAG moderates enlisted Hollywood A-listers Tom Hanks, Sally Field and George Clooney. All those actors have signed a "vote yes" petition.
Hanks appeared in a SAG video saying he supports the deal, "despite the fact that it is not perfect." He said it is a "smart contract for these hard economic times."
Both Freed and Rosenberg declined to predict which way the vote could go. Results are expected to be announced soon after SAG receives the last ballot on June 9.
David Ginsburg, a UCLA professor of entertainment and media law, said most producers in Hollywood see the deal winning approval and have already planned their production schedules.
If the two-year deal is approved, SAG moderates say that because other Hollywood unions will also be up for new contracts in 2011, they and SAG will have greater leverage to win concessions from the major studios.
A more immediate concern to SAG officials is the union's election this year for leadership posts, which is expected to be a referendum on the union's hardliners. Rosenberg said he is not ready to announce if he will seek re-election.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Walsh