Sunday, August 31, 2008

SAG Slate Interviews: Disappointment

Last week I conducted interviews with David Jolliffe and Anne-Marie Johnson, leaders of the dominant Membership First faction of the SAG National (and Hollywood) Board, and Ned Vaughn, leader of Unite for Strength, the challengers. An actor-like congeniality reigned, including flirtatiousness in Johnson’s case. Clear and convincing answers, however, were in short supply.

Regular readers of my posts know that I’ve been highly critical of Membership First for dragging the industry through a work stoppage in pursuit of goals that it doesn’t have the leverage to obtain because SAG doesn’t appear to be able to achieve the 75% vote threshold necessary to authorize a strike. As I’ve also said, if SAG were willing to accept the studios’ new media framework, it would more than likely be able to negotiate some of the other issues that matter.

I’ve also criticized SAG (i.e., MF) for all but driving AFTRA out the door, a job which AFTRA finished, severing a 27-year old joint negotiating strategy that presented a more or less united front at the bargaining table. The studios, as a result of the breakdown of this arrangement – called “Phase 1,” in the optimistic view that it was the first step of a merger – have been able to play one union off against the other in the current round of negotiations. AFTRA has become a much more effective competitor to SAG than it ever was.

My feelings about Membership First remain largely unchanged after the interview. Jolliffe and Johnson suggested only that educating the members would lead to the requisite level of support. This may be true, but why that wasn’t done over the last three years (since the time MF took power) is a mystery. That approach would have led to negotiations with leverage more clearly established.

The first step of that education campaign turns out to be a nine page letter to the members summarizing the deal on the table. That letter is apparently in the mails now, or shortly, accompanied by a postcard soliciting members’ reaction to the deal. If the letter is fairly one-sided, which seems likely, this mailing will constitute what politicians call a “push poll”: a poll designed to influence opinion, rather than simply record it. It will be interesting to see if SAG releases the results – and the vote totals, i.e., turnout.

The strategy may yet work, which could lead to a deal more favorable to SAG than I was expecting. We’ll see. But if that is the case, there’s still the difficult problem of AFTRA, on the TV side, at least. A better SAG deal means the AFTRA deal is less expensive to producers, and that means they’re likely to choose AFTRA over SAG for new shows, in network as well as basic cable (where this has already been happening for over a year, to SAG’s anger and dismay).

What’s SAG to do? The striking thing about Jolliffe and Johnson’s responses in my interviews is that they have no answer, other than to simply wish AFTRA away and declare that SAG is the actors union. Spending Labor Day at the beach is a fine thing, but sticking one’s head in the sand isn’t so effective.

Then there was the vagueness. For instance, are negotiations currently in progress? SAG has said yes, and the studios say no. Jolliffe’s answer: “only Alan and Doug” – SAG’s president and National Executive Director – know the answer. Considering that Jolliffe has been pulling many of the strings for the last several years, that’s more than disingenuous. How to repair the relationship between SAG’s Hollywood and NY (and regional) branches. Jolliffe’s answer was to “sit in a room together,” which is a non-answer.

For obvious reasons, I had hoped that Unite for Strength would present an attractive alternative to MF marked by a realistic approach to negotiation that would lead to actual gains for the guild. I expected a forceful explanation of how UFS (also referred to as U4S) would approach the task.

No such luck. Instead, Vaughn offered vague answers to specific questions. What does Vaughn want on the issues? Hard to know – he wouldn’t say. Would UFS fire the National Executive Director? Reconstitute the negotiating committee? I don’t know. Lots of hemming and hawing, followed finally by some hint that these options might be on the table, but no clear answer.

That’s not the breath of fresh air that I’d been hoping for. Indeed, oddly, the UFS literature pieces I’ve seen don’t even address the issue of how UFS would conduct bargaining with the studio alliance (the AMPTP). SAG’s in the middle of the worst theatrical and television contract negotiations in two decades – thanks largely to MF – and UFS won’t even express an opinion on what to do? That’s only a relatively small improvement over the people who got SAG there in the first place.

UFS instead focuses on merger with AFTRA, which it strongly supports. That to me is a longer term goal that ignores the matter on the table, as well as the commercials contract that was to be negotiated shortly. It’s been postponed six months but is still more immediate than any merger.

In any case, merger presents a dilemma: any unification is going to have to give the former AFTRA board some kind of equal say in policies and decisions, yet SAG will probably insist on proportionate representation, which would swamp AFTRA. Why would AFTRA accept this – and why would SAG accept the alternative?

Another matter is the name of the merged union, which clearly would have to be neither “SAG” nor “AFTRA.” This is a sensitive matter, since SAG’s is clearly the stronger brand name, yet AFTRA can scarcely be expected to accept a name that suggests an acquisition rather than a merger. It seems to me that “SAG-AFTRA” might be a logical choice, though the almost consonant-less, and thus perhaps wussy-sounding “AIMA” was the proposal several years ago when merger was last attempted. (That attempt garnered a majority of AFTRA voters, something that’s unlikely today, and 58% of SAG voters, just shy of the requisite 60%.) In any case, Vaughn’s answer, that “Uncle Joe's Actors Union” would be fine if need be, was cute, flippant, but also insensitive to decades-long SAG members.

Add to all of this the poisoned well from which both unions now draw their water, and it’s hard to see how merger would be accomplished. Vaughn seemed to wish away these difficulties with AFTRA, just as Jolliffe and Johnson would wish away AFTRA itself. Vaughn suggested forming an umbrella union for all entertainment workers. That would bring real strength to the table, just as all studios, and effectively all producers as well, are united at the table. It’s the right thing to strive for in the long, long term. But, at least for now, it seems an unachievable goal. Unity between SAG, AFTRA, Equity, the WGA, the DGA and the IA (IATSE) is almost unimaginable.

Then there’s the matter of qualified voting, aka affected member voting or affected voting. Vaughn and some members of his slate, before they were a slate, ill-advisedly pushed for this in the spring (“ill-advisedly” because it’d be political suicide for a Board member to support a proposal that would disenfranchise many SAG members). When MF successfully defeated the measure by exiling to a Board committee, the proponents vowed to keep fighting. But after they decided to run for the Board, they vowed not to support qualified voting. A flip-flop? You be the judge. Surprisingly, their old website supporting qualified voting is still up and accepting names of supporters. Vaughn dismissed the site as a “historical document,” but the fact remains that the site's still up and his name is still on it. That’s a gaffe.

Finally, let’s look at Silicon Valley. The entire traditional entertainment industry – management and labor alike – is threatened by new media and new distribution technologies. Both sides are locked in a silicon cage. What did these leaders – MF and UFS – have to say on the subject? Answer: nothing enlightening. Unfortunately, when scorpions are locked in a cage, they fight each other, not the cage.


Several hundred people have viewed the interviews live or in the archives. Check out the videos if you haven’t. Reaction has been burning up the SAG-ecology blogosphere: take a look at Blog Stage (and here), IMDB (and here, here, here and here), Deadline Hollywood Daily, SAG Actor bulletin board, SAGwatch blog (and here, here, here and here), and SAG Watchdog. And watch for my interviews this week with the independent candidates from Hollywood.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Video Interview Update & Call to Independent Candidates

The video interviews of SAG Board candidates from Membership First and Unite for Strength that I did on Wednesday have now been seen by over 400 people live or via archive. (The number might be more -- for some reason the Views counter on ustream is stuck on 150.) In fact, even the day after the interview, people were in the ustream chat room talking about the interviews and the issues.

Due to the success of these interviews, I'd like to invite any and all independent candidates to be interviewed live on streaming video as well. Contact me at jhandel (at) att (dot) net to arrange.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Archive Video of Interviews with SAG Candidates

Yesterday, I did live streaming video interviews with SAG candidates and board members from the incumbent, dominant faction, Membership First (represented by David Jolliffe and Ann-Marie Johnson), and the challengers, Unite for Strength (represented by Ned Vaughn).

Some highlights from the interviews: Unite for Strength appears to have many of the same positions on contract issues, generally speaking as Membership First, although Ned was vague about a lot of this, saying that he wasn't in the negotiating room. He refused to say explicitly whether they would seek to fire the National Executive Director, Doug Allen, but said that he would take direction from a new Board majority if Unite for Strength gained a majority (which Ned said would take 6 seats), and expressed confidence that it would not be necessary to dissolve the negotiating committee in order to get it to take a different approach to the negotiations. Ned also was somewhat equivocal about whether, someday after accomplishing a merger with AFTRA, they might seek to reinstitute affected member voting (qualified voting).

Membership First contends that their actions towards AFTRA this year were not responsible for AFTRA deciding to negotiate separately -- rather, that AFTRA was determined to do so in any case. They insisted that negotiations with the studios were ongoing, but refused to provide details, citing the fact that David is on the negotiating committee. They were at first reluctant to concede that SAG was de-leveraged, but ultimately did. Critically, Membership First revealed its strategy, which has been a source of confusion for many people: educate the members on the issues to the point where it does become possible to meet the 75% threshold for obtaining a strike authorization.

Each of the interviews is about an hour and ten minutes long – but well worth it if you want to be informed. Apparently, the candidates haven’t done any other video interviews except soundbite clips.

Click on the images below to watch the interviews (the first is Unite for Strength and the second is Membership First), or click

(By the way, a blooper: we hit Record a little before Broadcast, so you'll see 30-60 seconds of pre-program setup and chatting. Ah well, just ignore that.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Live TV interviews with SAG Board candidates/members

Note: To watch the interviews, click here just before 2:00 today, and again just before 4:00:


There's a fight for control of the Screen Actors Guild. Elections are going on now, and may determine whether and when the Guild finally reaches a deal with the studios. Join me as I interview representatives of Unite for Strength, the challengers in this election, and of the dominant incumbent faction, Membership First.

Date: This Wednesday, August 27, 2008.

2:00 PM Pacific / 5:00 PM Eastern -- Ned Vaughn, Unite for Strength
4:00 PM Pacific / 7:00 PM Eastern -- David Jolliffe & Anne-Marie Johnson, Membership First

These are live online streaming video interviews.

To watch the interviews, click here just before 2:00 on Wednesday, and again just before 4:00:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Media Jurisdiction: Letter from the DGA

The DGA has just released a letter from DGA President Michael Apted entitled "Giving New Media Room to Grow." Dated today (August 20, 2008), the letter appears in the September 2008 issue of DGA Monthly.

The letter addresses the question of the jurisdictional carveout for certain media production. I agree with most of it, and present it here. See below for my additional thoughts.

Dear Members,

As we move into the third month of our new contract, I wanted to take this opportunity to address the issue of union jurisdiction over new media production – the question of whether all the writers, actors, and directors who work on studio-produced programming for the Internet must be covered by union contracts. This issue – new media jurisdiction – was central to all the guild negotiations this year because however entertainment evolves over the next few decades, it is clear that a significant part is going to be online.

In our contract negotiations earlier this year, we made the decision to allow an exception to our general policy of insisting on jurisdiction over every show made by the studios and production companies that are signatories to the DGA contract. The exception, which the Writers Guild and AFTRA also chose to include in their new contracts, allows producers to make low-budget “experimental” programs for the Internet that hire people who would not be covered by our contract. However, we built into our agreement a very important protection – if a signatory company on a new media production employs a professional as director or in any other DGA category, regardless of the budget level – that production is covered by the Guild agreement.

Critics of this approach argue that union jurisdiction must be absolute. If some productions are allowed to be non-union, they claim, producers will take advantage of the loopholes and eventually all productions will be non-union. But before there can be a union job, there has to be a job. And despite all the grandiose talk about the coming bonanza, new media hasn’t yet started raining money. The truth is that for new media production to realize its undeniably vast potential – and create all those jobs we want our members to have – it must be given the room to evolve and grow. The current landscape of new media is overwhelmingly populated by user-generated content and all kinds of concepts created by thousands upon thousands of eager novices with digital cameras and new, out-of-the-box ideas. Occasionally, one of these efforts might catch the attention of the studios, and the new media jurisdictional carve-out will allow producers of extremely low-budget productions to take a chance with young, untried writers, directors, and actors who are not members of any union. If their efforts yield fruit and their shows succeed, their budgets will quickly reach professional levels and they will come under union jurisdiction. If they don’t succeed– well, at least they got their shot. That’s the nature of experimentation. We must be flexible to allow that experimentation to flourish.

What would happen if the unions were to demand and be given jurisdiction over all new media production without exception? The most likely scenario is that it would become structurally and economically unfeasible for AMPTP members to make low-budget experimental shows for the Internet. Then two things could happen. First, rather than grow within the studios and companies that are guild signatories, new media production would gravitate toward the Googles and Microsofts of the world, which are not. Second, to stay competitive in the game, the studios are likely to create non-union subsidiaries where they could produce Internet programs without bothering to become signatories at all. At this point, the talent guilds would be in danger of being pushed out of new media. Were an experimental show to succeed, it wouldn’t come under union jurisdiction, nor would the writers, actors, and directors who created it.

Even if the studios were persuaded to make low-budget new media production under union jurisdiction, this could result in another problem. Many of those untested novices would be required to pay DGA initiation fees and dues, potentially forcing the DGA to accept a large number of new members who have been hired to do one experimental project and might never direct again. Frankly, it would not be fair to charge them initiation fees and dues (which they probably couldn’t afford in any case).

So we have a choice. We can insist on having jurisdiction on paper over everything, and thereby run the risk that the area develops in a largely non-union context. Or we can carve out an exception that will allow experimentation, innovation and growth at the lowest budget levels, while simultaneously securing jurisdiction over all professional-level productions. That approach ensures that if and when the producers become successful, the jobs they’ve created will go union. This approach has been successful before. With very low-budget feature films, we designed an innovative, flexible jurisdictional carve-out that allowed the new medium to develop in a way that ensured that once it was ready for professionals, those professionals would be our members.

I believe we’ve made the right decision.


Michael Apted
DGA President

The new media jurisdictional carve-out would apply only to a production that falls under the following circumstances:

* $15,000 or less per minute; or
* $300,000 or less per episode; or
* $500,000 or less per series of programs produced for a single order;

and does not utilize an employee in any DGA-covered category who has previously been employed under a DGA collective bargaining agreement.

Two points worth adding. First, the dollar thresholds are high -- much higher than almost all new media production today ($2,000 - $5,000 per minute is typical, with occasional productions at $10,000 per minute). I'd prefer to see them lower, and this is (in my view) an unfortunate compromise that the DGA made. But it's the template, and we're stuck with it, as a practical matter.

However, bear in mind that the union-member provision ("and does not utilize an employee in any DGA-covered category ...") means that even if the production is below the overly-generous thresholds, it's still covered if it uses a DGA member.

Second, the WGA, AFTRA, and proposed SAG deals have the same jurisdictional dollar thresholds, and also have similar provisions regarding use of union members. For instance, in the WGA deal, if the show is written by a "professional writer" -- a defined term that includes WGA members, published novelists, and professionally-produced playwrights -- then the show is covered, regardless of budget.

Likewise, the AFTRA deal has a similar provision regarding "covered performers." This term is defined as follows:

A “covered performer” is an individual who has worked under a collective bargaining
agreement and has met any of the following criteria:
.. has at least two television (including free, basic, pay or direct-to-video) or
movie credits;
.. has had 13 weeks’ employment as a performer in radio (including satellite
radio) in a major market;
.. has had at least two credits in a professional stage play (e.g., Broadway,
Off-Broadway, LORT, COST, or CORST contract, or as part of an Equity
National tour);
.. has been employed as a performer on an audio book or as a royalty artist on
a sound recording which has been commercially released by a major or
bona fide independent label;
.. has been employed as a principal performer, announcer, singer, or dancer in
a national television or radio commercial, interactive game, or nonbroadcast/
industrial production.
The Producer shall be entitled to rely on the representation of the performer as to
whether he or she meets the definition of a “covered performer.”
The proposed SAG deal is reportedly similar to the AFTRA deal, and thus presumably includes this language. Thus, if a show uses a SAG, AFTRA or Equity member with two TV or movie credits or any of the other listed credits, then it's covered, even if the budget is below the thresholds.

Friday, August 15, 2008

SAG Still Talking? And What Next?

Frustrating bloggers and reporters who hoped the week's business was done, SAG sent out another weekend evening email an hour or so ago. The previous such email, released about two weeks ago, is discussed here -- and, on a personal note, I managed to beat the MSM with my report on that one. See the "P.S." in this article from Back Stage magazine's Blog Stage blog:

Based on the time stamp of Handel's email and the Variety report, it appears that the blogger beat the reporter by almost five hours. If that is the case, harumph. We don't like new media anymore; we prefer the olden days of media-elite hegemony, when lawyers knew their place.
In any case, today's email claims that "SAG negotiators and industry representatives continue to have informal discussions regarding a successor TV/Theatrical agreement." The email two weeks ago made the same claim, and was met with much skepticism, and a denial by the AMPTP. Harrumph indeed. My view: I doubt there's much going on now. Unless you're a stunt performer with enormous endurance, don't hold your breath expecting anything to happen until after the SAG elections, which close September 18.

The email also notes that SAG has signed 658 Guaranteed Completion Contracts (GCC) with independent producers, representing a numerical volume equal to half the feature films produced in 2007. Those contracts mean that even if there were to be a strike, the actors wouldn't walk out on that producer's film (that's why these contracts are only for independent producers, not studios).

In addition, the email claims that "the expired TV/Theatrical contract remains in effect." This must be something of an oversimplification, since SAG surely doesn't mean that the contract's no-strike clause (Art. 3(a)) is still in effect. In any case, the whole question of what aspects of an expired union agreement remain in effect, and for how long, is too vexed for my mind at this hour.

But speaking of the SAG elections, what might happen after September 18? There are three scenarios.

If Membership First is overwhelmingly reelected -- SAG releases vote totals, thus we and the candidates will know the margin of victory -- then SAG leadership will take that as a resounding endorsement, and might seek a strike authorization vote. They'd probably first try to reopen discussions with the studios. If the studios stick to their guns, which seems likely in the absence of an actual strike, SAG might then seek an authorization vote. That process takes 2-3 weeks. Even then, there's no strike -- the board would then have the right to call one, however, but that probably wouldn't happen overnight. So, if you add up the timelines (September 18 plus a few weeks of attempted negotiating plus 2-3 weeks plus some further delay), it becomes clear that there won't be a strike before Nov. 1, if at all.

On the other hand, if Unite for Strength (the challengers' group) wins enough seats to take control of the SAG Board (about 5 seats would be needed, apparently), then they will probably fire the SAG Executive Director, change the negotiating committee, and do a deal with the studios. None of those steps will be easy. Thus, the earliest I would expect a deal would be mid-October to early-November.

For those of you with a sentimental streak, note that Nov. 5 will be the one-year anniversary of the start of the writers strike. A great day for a deal, I suppose, or, more darkly, what better time to cripple the industry with another work stoppage.

There's a third possibility: Membership First retains control of the Board, but not with an overwhelming vote. Perhaps they lose some seats, but not enough to shift control to Unite for Strength. In this scenario, it'd be foolish to expect anything by the end of October except Halloween candy and continued stalemate.

Meanwhile, one other note from today's SAG email: "Watch for an extensive “Contract 2008” printed mailer--- coming to your mailbox soon." We will indeed be watching.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Unite for Strength Star Power

Unite for Strength took the battle against Membership First to the stars today, releasing a list of almost three dozen A-listers who support U4S in its bid to wrest control of the SAG board from MF hardliners.

The bold-face names include Alec Baldwin, Sally Field, and Tom Hanks, among others. Field also wrote an email to 38,000 Hollywood SAG members, strongly urging support for M4S. For more info, see and

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Rainbow Flags at Comic-Con

Note: This post is off topic.

The typical comic book cover features an assortment of superheroes and civilians, but one thing’s almost a constant: the guys are buffed and the women curvaceous (the aliens are too, in a way, unless they’re blobs). Add to that a rainbow of colors, and it’s obvious why comic book covers are so appealing.

But about those colors: sometimes they actually are a rainbow. That was certainly true at the Comic-Con 2008 booth of Prism Comics, a non-profit, all-volunteer group that promotes visibility for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered comic content and creators. The group’s been around since 2003, and although it sounds like a comic book publisher itself, it’s actually an educational and networking group – though they do published an informative annual guide to gay comics.

I wish I could tell you I sat down for an interview with two of the group’s leaders, but actually, we stood. With an estimated 125,000 attendees, there weren’t many places to sit in the exhibit hall. So, as people streamed by, occasionally photographing Board member Ted Abenheim (who was in costume), I chatted with Ted and president Roger Klorese, juggling my notebook, briefcase, and a bit of swag.

Although Prism’s “only” five years old, it’s an outgrowth of a group founded about 20 years ago, at the time of the first Comic-Con panel on gays and comics. The Comic-Con management has been supportive ever since, I learned, and this year there were four panels on glbt subjects, as well as a mixer, a party, and also a dinner organized by a Prism supporter, Aman Chaudhary.

As you might expect, Prism focuses some of its efforts on major players in the industry: DC and Marvel Comics, of course, and also Diamond Comics, the biggest distributor. Ted and Roger told me that Prism has good relations with these companies – you might say Diamond is a gay’s best friend – though the group is less connected to another key player, Dark Horse.

Among the group’s other programs are an annual award for queer comics and even a grant program for queer projects. The overall motivation for these efforts: glbt creators were “looking for a home,” said Roger. Adds Ted, “we want to let fans and retailers – everyone – know we’re there.” All in all, worthy goals and a great set of programs. Check out their website, and drop by their booth next Comic-Con.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

SAG DVD Residuals Increase: RIP

It seems pretty clear that SAG has dropped its request for an increase in the DVD residual (as I predicted it would have to): an email from National Executive Director Doug Allen to the members an hour ago lists various priorities -- and omits DVD altogether.

The relevant portion of the letter says:

Your interest in and support of the key issues like jurisdiction and residuals for all new media have been invaluable to our negotiations ... We also know that you remain concerned about other key bargaining priorities such as, for example, product integration, force majeure, stunt performers and background actors’ issues.
Three years from now, when the SAG agreement (if one ever gets signed) and WGA agreement expire a month apart, the unions may decide to try once again to increase DVD residuals. They'd be well advised to do so, not just because the DVD/BD (Blu-ray Disc) market will still be worth many billions of dollars, but also because future technologies are likely to include physical media, and these will be paid using the "DVD formula." See Slipped Disc: Why DVD Residuals Still Matter — and Always Will.

Turning from the future back to the present, the letter also seems to say that meetings between SAG and the studios are taking place now, notwithstanding press reports to the contrary:
Your negotiators are working every day to successfully conclude negotiations .... Right now, that involves small group meetings and exchanges with the employers, their AMPTP representatives and a core group of leaders in both organizations. ... You will not doubt read spin suggesting that there is dead silence between our sides. ... Discussions through alternative channels are ongoing....
Sorry if I remain skeptical, but I doubt progress is being made now, or that any will be made until after the SAG elections conclude on September 18. In my view, the soonest we'll see a deal is early October, and there's no assurance of that. It all depends on the election results.