UPDATED: A source has slipped me this “force majeure” letter from NBC Universal received this week by a Hollywood talent agency on behalf of an actress on a TV series. (story continues below)
From what I can glean, the casts of The Office, 30 Rock, Bionic Woman and Battlestar Galactica to name just a few shows on NBC and the SciFi Channels were informed Thursday and Friday that their contracts have been suspended. It’s because Universal Media Studios has opted to exercise what’s known as the force majeure clause in their Screen Actors Guild agreements.
The force majeure provision allows studios and networks to suspend SAG members’ deals immediately once production on their shows has shut down.
Other studios have done the same: at Sony Pictures TV, the casts of Fox’s Til Death and CBS’ Rules of Engagement have been suspended, too.
But regarding the striking writers, most of the showrunners and hyphenates who’ve walked off the job have been threatened with or actually suspended without pay for not fulfilling their producing duties. But the threats still hangs out there that the studios and networks could escalate matters by firing them. The conventional wisdom is that the studios and networks are purposely waiting for sufficient weeks to pass so that they can, in a first step to a major reorganization of their TV business, kill showrunner/hyphenate deals by invoking force majeure (a common contract clause that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event, such as a strike, occurs). From that point on, all bets are off.
Studios suspending actors without pay and not outright terminating their contracts, which prevents them from finding work elsewhere, has SAG pissed. Per SAG’s agreement, studios can opt to suspend members for five weeks with half pay; suspend them with full pay; or release them from their contracts. Even if the actors are fired, they’re supposed to be immediately rehired under their original contract terms once production recommences.
I understand that NBC Universal mailed out a stack of these ‘force majeure” letters which began arriving Friday at the agencies of various actors. One of the Battlestar Galactica thespians tells me: “When our agents and managers phoned business affairs for clarification, they were told that we are on suspension without pay. We are not terminated. We are on hold to BSG with no pay in perpetuity until the strike is over. When the strike does end Universal/Scifi will then decide whether they want to bring the show back or let us go. Until that time we are in first position with BSG and will have to clear any other project with Scifi/Uni.
“They are not following article 61 of the SAG agreement and are about to get a lot of calls from SAG lawyers. They say that since we have shot the minimum 13 episodes of this season, as per our contracts, that they are under no obligation to pay us or let us go. We are essentially on hiatus. To say yesterday was a tough day on set as this information was slowly presented to us would be a profound understatement.”
But it appears the actors and their reps are planning to fight this idea of putting actors on indeterminate hold without pay under a “too bad we own you” power play. Regarding BSG, NBC Uni’s SciFi channel is being told that, since the terms of Article 61 appear to be breached, the actors can terminate their deals and attempt to find work elsewhere.
I smell a brawl brewing.