Thursday, June 5, 2008

With One Union Already Done, SAG Auditions for an Actors Deal

One actors union has just done its deal with the studios, and now its larger rival, the Screen Actors Guild, is back at the bargaining table. Is a SAG deal imminent? Not likely. Instead, we may be sliding toward another Hollywood work stoppage.

The signs aren’t good. Already, SAG has given a chilly response to the deal reached last week by the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. A key source of contention is clip consent, the issue of whether studios need an actor’s permission in order to make short excerpts of movies and TV shows available online or via cell phones. SAG wants to preserve actors’ control over their own images, but the veto right SAG seeks is unrealistic in an era of Internet piracy, fan sites, mash-ups and morphing. Understandably, AFTRA all but passed on the issue, although the union’s spin might suggest otherwise.

SAG is also unhappy that AFTRA didn’t achieve increases in home video residuals, the reuse fees that actors receive when DVDs are sold. But AFTRA’s not alone. In their most recent deals, the writers didn’t achieve those increases either, and the directors apparently didn’t even raise the issue. It’s not easy to renegotiate a 24-year-old formula. SAG is right – the fees are unfairly low – but with no leverage left, the guild will have to abandon the issue sooner or later. Better to do so sooner and move the negotiations forward.

New media is another big issue. The AFTRA deal follows the template set by the directors and writers. SAG’s not happy with that either, but it’s unreasonable to expect significant changes to what’s become an industry-wide standard. Yet another key issue is product integration – scenes in movies or TV shows in which a character extols the virtues of a particular product. SAG wants compensation for these embedded commercials, and wants a veto right over them as well. A veto is not practical – studios need the fees that product manufacturers pay – but compensation is eminently reasonable. AFTRA achieved neither a veto nor compensation.

The AFTRA deal sounds like all sour and no sweet, but that’s not quite true. In particular, the new agreement increases minimum compensation levels by a healthy margin. That benefits middle-class actors, a key goal for SAG.

What now? True leadership means knowing which cards to hold and which to fold. SAG should focus on obtaining compensation for product integration – and the studios should give on this issue – but the guild will have to pass on the other major items. There’s a tough lesson here for SAG: by pushing too hard in an inter-union rivalry, the guild gave its smaller competitor an excuse to bargain separately with the studios for the first time in 27 years. That allowed management to play one union off against the other, and actors pay the price.

Unfortunately, SAG seems unyielding, and its leadership appears convinced that bargaining down to the wire is the best strategy. The SAG contract expires June 30, but the AFTRA deal will probably be ratified by union membership just days before that, creating additional pressure on SAG in the bargaining room. And, once the deal is approved, AFTRA will start signing up new television shows while SAG is still sidelined in negotiations. Yet even that may not be enough to convince SAG to close a deal quickly. Management, in turn, is unlikely to compromise much on issues already negotiated with AFTRA.

This may sound like a recipe for a strike, but it’s not. That’s because SAG rules require a 75 percent membership vote to authorize a strike, a potentially difficult threshold to meet. SAG leadership probably won’t even seek the authorization, in part for that reason, and also because the New York and regional factions of SAG leadership don’t even want a strike at all. (Those non-Hollywood factions are more aligned ideologically with AFTRA than with SAG’s dominant Hollywood leadership.)

No strike, yet no deal, means SAG might offer to continue working under the expired contract. Management is unlikely to agree, for fear that SAG could walk out while expensive movies or TV series are in the middle of production. Instead, the studios will probably choose not resume production of feature films, or of nighttime TV shows other than those few covered by AFTRA. (Daytime shows are covered by a separate AFTRA agreement, on which a deal was reached two months ago.)

A work stoppage at management’s election is a lockout, not a strike, but the effect is much the same: an industry idled – for the second time in less than a year – and another blow to the local economy, already made soft by subprime shenanigans. Los Angeles can ill afford the hit, especially in the face of competition from the non-unionized entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Actors are known to ask “What’s my character’s motivation?” when studying a new script. Let’s hope avoiding another work stoppage is motivation enough for both SAG and the studios.

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