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Calm Down. SAG Will Not Be a WGA Strike Sequel.

The sense of panic among actors, writers, directors and below-the-liners is palpable in Hollywood right now, matched only by the angst of agents whose phones aren’t ringing, and out-of-town journalists struggling to write “strike scare” stories. Strange, isn’t it, that the only Hollywood types without any visible flop sweat from the de facto shutdown of production are the network and studio moguls — because they are the puppeteers pulling everybody else’s strings.

From behind the scenes, they order Hollywood to jump, and the town asks how high. And never more so than during all these guild negotiations. If only the entire industry could stay focused on the actions of big media and start pressuring the Hollywood CEOs to put people back to work. Instead, everyone’s attention has strayed to the carnival sideshow of SAG vs. AFTRA, and AFTRA vs. SAG, and Big Star vs. Big Star, and all the other diversions in an already-confused situation.

Now, take a deep breath and calm down. To understand what’s going on right now, I first need to ask you to do the following: Reflect on everything you knew surrounding the writers strike, and then throw it all out the window when considering if there’ll be a strike sequel, this time by the actors guilds against the big media behemoths.

What’s going on with SAG and AFTRA and AMPTP is the opposite of what happened a few months back, when the writers were, for the most part, united. The actors are divided to the point of distraction. The writers went after AMPTP and the Big Media behemoths. The actors are going after each other.

The agents and moguls back-channeled negotiations with the WGA. Hardly any back-channeling is going on right now between the moguls and SAG, while the agents are sitting on their hands. The result is that Hollywood has to rewire, reboot and rethink everything. In this case, past doesn’t have to be prologue. There doesn’t have to be a strike. In fact, I can definitely tell you that SAG has “never suggested that a strike was an objective or essential,” I’m told by an insider.

“Yes, it is an option. But SAG leadership have not been the ones threatening it or saber rattling,” according to this source.

Another insider puts it even more forcefully: “Not only is there no strike plan, there is no strike authorization, and there is no requirement that SAG has to go on strike once the contract expires on June 30.”

And yet there are highly organized factions at the top of the studios and networks, IATSE locals, AFTRA leadership, and even SAG’s own board that want to scare everyone into thinking a walkout is inevitable unless there’s complete contract capitulation by SAG leadership.

I’m here to tell you this is untrue.

Yes, there was an uneasy countdown to June 30, when SAG’s contract with AMPTP expired at midnight. But by midweek, not only was there no hint of a walkout, there was also no hint of any real movement on either side.

A more important date is July 8, when AFTRA announces its contract-ratification vote results. So what happens then? Again, not a SAG strike. The guild’s leadership understands that there’s no urgency within the membership at this time for such an extreme call. Which is precisely why there’s no impetus atop the guild to even consider holding a strike-authorization vote.

If one were held and no authorization given, SAG would suffer a psychological blow from which it probably couldn’t recover this contract cycle. Ergo, no push for a vote.

Thirty-six hours before SAG’s contract expired, Screen Actors Guild released the following statement from SAG national president Alan Rosenberg, which confirmed my Deadline Hollywood Daily posting on June 27: “We have taken no steps to initiate a strike-authorization vote by the members of Screen Actors Guild. Any talk about a strike or a management lockout at this point is simply a distraction.”

Meanwhile, the question is, will AFTRA members ratify the new contract with the AMPTP? Two weeks ago, I would have said definitely. And this week, I really don’t know. All anyone is operating on are anecdotes and tea leaves. But every day that passes, 77,000-member AFTRA gets more shrill and hysterical, and 120,000-strong SAG gets more over-reaching and arrogant, as they battle over 44,000 dual members.

Which is why I feel that SAG efforts to convince those dual members to vote against AFTRA’s contract is a big waste of time. Even SAG’s board is divided on this issue. SAG leadership’s explanation to its members is that a “no” vote is crucial to let the moguls know that AFTRA’s lousy deal (undermining residuals, clips consent and other prime-time network issues valued by actors who have those protections under SAG) won’t go down with dual members.

 

But, say the contract is rejected, AFTRA will still find a way to suck up to AMPTP and redeliver only a slightly less lousy contract to its members. It’s simply in the smaller union’s nature to do that, given its inferiority complex. All this importance bestowed on AFTRA is absurd. The union is responsible for only three scripted network prime-time series, one of which has been canceled. The union should pick up a few more scripted network pilots by September. But its business in relation to SAG’s is like a chihuahua pestering a mastiff. SAG, however, is worried about AFTRA’s growing control over scripted cable shows and wants to “draw a line in the sand” on that issue.

But I say this is not the proper time or place to deal with that. Let the two unions stage a cage match after Hollywood gets back to work. Finding itself SAG’s target gave AFTRA more credit than it deserved. And so it emboldened AFTRA leadership to nip at SAG’s heels.

AFTRA president Roberta Reardon came up with a pitiful excuse to justify what was clearly a predetermined decision not to bargain alongside SAG. Instead, AFTRA truly made a deal with the devil in order to do AMPTP’s bidding. AFTRA relentlessly villified the bigger actors guild’s current leadership, which continues even now. Unfortunately, SAG bit back — and the result has been spin and propaganda from both sides, which is unsavory and unnecessary.

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AFTRA also added insult to injury by starting this terrible blood sport of pitting Big Actor vs. Big Actor, even though none of these superstars are affected. Most have not worked under AFTRA’s contract for eons, and they have top agents who negotiate their individual deals. Nonetheless, AFTRA was the first to officially e-mail members and media a graphic of Sally Field and James Cromwell, et al., supporting the deal. Yes, AFTRA played the emotion card by spotlighting Field, the woman who won an Oscar for her portrayal of union organizer Norma Rae. (But, interestingly, the e-mail sent to members announcing her support was sent to “Everyone (MinusLA).” Hmm.

Guild contracts are all about strength in numbers, the power of collective bargaining and looking out for the little guys. In entertainment, they’re about protecting residuals, which allow creatives to lead middle-class lives. They’re not about Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson or George Clooney.

Do these A-listers have the right to express an opinion? Of course. Do their names carry weight? Sure. Are they relevant to this discussion? Hardly. I’d so much rather see all the superstars collectively call the moguls and put pressure on AMPTP to deal seriously with SAG. Instead, pro-AMPTP factions are out and about in Hollywood, claiming that SAG has shut down the town.

I don’t know how that’s possible. The Hollywood CEOs own the means of production, so only they have the power to stop principal photography on big studio films, based on their own “fear” of a looming actors strike. But there is no evidence that the guild is contemplating such a labor action. So that purported fear is either irrational or manipulative.

As for the negotiations between SAG and AMPTP, they are at a complete standstill. SAG national executive director Doug Allen recently broke his media blackout to make clear that it’s not SAG that has been stalling. But when AMPTP-SAG talks were stopped and then restarted, the big media cartel forced the actors guild to waste weeks negotiating up from ground zero. How is that fair pattern bargaining?

Yet, the moguls demand SAG settle for the contract terms accepted by every other guild, especially on new media. That’s where the writers chose to draw their line in the sand, however faint, after failing to make lucrative agreements for each new technology that came along — first VHS, then DVDs, now streaming and downloading.

Had the Hollywood CEOs been honest and open to renegotiate the contract terms each time a new format caught on, these guild negotiations wouldn’t be so arduous. Instead, there are years and years of resentment to contend with, as well as an infamously unmovable AMPTP force, soon-to-retire Nick Counter. The writers got a little, but not a lot, last spring. Now it’s SAG’s turn to try for a little more, which, under a “favored nations” verbal agreement, will trickle down to WGA and DGA.

So where are the moguls themselves in all this? Nowhere. Neither Peter Chernin (News Corp/Fox) nor Bob Iger (Disney) nor Les Moonves (CBS), who all, at one time or another, took leadership roles during the WGA strike settlement, will volunteer to get involved. (See accompanying story.)

 

It would seem, on the surface, that the moguls hold all the cards since they decide when Hollywood gets back to work, how much actors will be paid and the conditions under which they will work. So, at some point soon, probably on or around July 8, AMPTP will pull the same maneuver it did with WGA (and even with SAG back on May 6), and walk out while issuing an ultimatum.

SAG, for its part, can start to organize rolling actor sickouts to delay TV and studio productions. It can threaten a boycott of the Emmys. And most moguls will admit they can’t keep a lid on movie production forever and need to start principal photography on many projects no later than September 1.

In addition, the Hollywood CEOs still have hanging over their heads those hefty force majeure liabilities, ranging from $10M to $60M per company left over from the writers strike and payable to SAG, which has offered to engage in settlement talks if progress on the contract is made. Moreover, SAG can start meeting with big institutional investors who own sizable stakes in the big media companies.

And although the entertainment companies plead poverty to guild negotiators, the fact is business is very, very good for big media even in today’s down economy. New media has become this sector’s newest profit center, with NBC.com alone expected to generate “tens of millions” of dollars in revenue next year “in a business that didn’t exist” a few years ago.

So why shouldn’t creatives share in this? Unless they negotiate a bigger piece of the pie now instead of later, history has shown that the corporations simply won’t renegotiate new technology terms in three years, or ever, even as the business grows. That’s certainly what happened to DVDs.

The quicker Hollywood realizes that SAG is not the obstacle here, the quicker this town will get back to work. No one knows better than the writers what torture dealing with AMPTP really is.

So it’s important to note that any improved new media terms negotiated by SAG leadership will also be enjoyed by WGA and DGA. That’s because of the verbal favored nations agreement negotiated during the writers strike and considered binding by the guilds, even if it was never formally written down.

In other words, this is not just SAG’s fight with AMPTP anymore. It’s creatives versus big media corporations. Let’s hope Hollywood is back to work by July 21.

 Also read Nikki Finke's "The Details the Moguls Don’t Want You to Know."


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