Friday, June 27, 2008

Marxism in Hollywood

Another day, another denunciation. It's hard to know what the SAG Hollywood leadership is thinking. They’ve deployed robocalls, trade ads, emails, and more, in a misguided effort to defeat the AFTRA deal. Success is unlikely, but in any case, the result will probably be continued labor paralysis, not progress. After all, AFTRA is not going to strike, nor negotiate jointly with SAG, no matter what the outcome of the ratification vote.

For its part, SAG’s also unlikely to strike, since a 75% affirmative vote is required for strike authorization. What's more, we're nowhere near a strike, since the balloting process would apparently take three weeks, and hasn't even been initiated. The guild’s own New York, Chicago and San Francisco branches won’t support a strike – and have criticized the anti-AFTRA strategy – and even SAG’s allies at the WGA have been largely silent.

Meanwhile, the guild’s negotiations with the studios drag on interminably, with little evident progress. The contract expires Monday night, but that doesn’t seem to have heightened the urgency particularly. It's hard to tell whether SAG even has a strategy, or is simply stuck in a morass of overpromised goals and anti-AFTRA animus, mixed in with valid points (force majeure, clip minimums, some aspects of product integration) that might be more achievable were there a greater sense of realism in the rhetoric and tactics.

As we undergo a second Hollywood labor stoppage in less than a year, some explanation, although little comfort, is provided by Karl Marx, once considered a patron saint of the labor movement. Expanding on a remark by Hegel, Marx posited that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. This year seems proof of that. One can only hope that twice is the limit, since the SAG commercials contract expires this fall, in case you’d mistakenly thought we were anywhere near done with labor unrest.

Of course, when it comes to legal analysis, Karl is not the most authoritative Marx in a capitalist society. For that – and particularly in Hollywood – we turn to Groucho and Chico. In 1935’s A Night at the Opera, Groucho describes a contract provision that he refers to as a “sanity clause.” Chico is unpersuaded: “You can't fool me,” he says, “there ain't no Sanity Claus.”

If only there were. Rationality has been in short supply the last twelve months. The Writers Guild and the studios both seemed hell-bent on a strike, and outside voices did little to deter or shorten the experience. A federal mediator had no effect, and even the head of CAA was unable to broker a deal. Only a confluence of circumstances – including the impending destruction of the Oscars – was enough to end the stalemate. Nothing like a busted awards ceremony to get Hollywood’s attention.

Unfortunately, no obvious or immediate deadlines loom this time. Now, as then, some have called on the Governor to intervene, and his experience as both a Terminator and a kindergarten cop would make him well-suited to the task. But there’s little upside, and plenty of risk, to the governor in getting involved in a parochial Hollywood dispute, no matter the economic impact. Instead, we seem destined to a war of attrition, as SAG, AFTRA and the studios all jockey for advantage with feature production stalled and television work uncertain. Stay tuned – if you can stand it.