Sunday, September 14, 2008

SAG: How to Make a Deal

SAG staggers on, occupied by bitterness and dissension, but with little apparent progress towards a deal with the studios. The last contract expired almost three months ago. Does that mean one’s impossible? No. Here’s a plan.

(Hats off to Stephen Diamond for his memo “How to Break the Template” for several of these ideas. Also, I know that blog pages can be hard to print out cleanly, so email me at jhandel at att dot net for a pdf.)

Why Bother?

First, a threshold question: why bother making a deal? Two reasons:

(1) SAG’s missing out on the good things AFTRA got, such as 3.5% annual wage increases (3.0% in the second year of the three year contract, but with the other 0.5% diverted to the pension and health fund), and new media coverage that, though flawed, far exceeds the current no-media state of affairs.

(2) The union risks becoming increasingly irrelevant. AFTRA is signing new TV shows, and will continue to do so. Two years out, those minimums will exceed SAG’s by about 6.5% - 7.0%, and the pain will be real. Eventually, as a result, some SAG shows may choose to decertify, and go with AFTRA. And, as new shows continue to be introduced, AFTRA’s market share increases. Likewise, reality programming, to the extent it’s unionized, is already AFTRA, not SAG. In addition, AFTRA will come under pressure to expand its jurisdiction to digitally-shot theatrical motion pictures, and may make moves in that direction, notwithstanding its current denial of any desire to do so.

Moreover, AFTRA’s direct relations with the AFL-CIO will deepen (SAG’s affiliation is indirect, through an organization called the 4A’s), and its strategic alliance may bear some sort of fruit. Meanwhile, SAG relations with the WGA are somewhat pro forma, its deal with the talent agents expired years ago, and its relations with the rest of the industry are chilly. Even within its own membership, SAG’s relations are poor: specifically, it’s Hollywood vs. the rest of the country, New York included.

Do the Studios Care?

Of course, it takes two to tango. Do the studios even care about a deal? Yes, somewhat. They probably have several fears. (1) The effect of a possible strike, no matter how apparently unlikely, that could interrupt feature production. The effect on fall 2009 would be devastating. (2) The effect of a possible strike on production of serialized television shows. Episodic shows are more immune, because production of a few shows means at least a short season, whereas half a season of Lost is pretty useless. (3) Destruction of the 2009 Oscars. Recall that the threat to the Oscars was part of what drove a settlement of the this year’s writers strike. Astonishingly, SAG has made no effort to get A-listers to boycott the Emmys, which take place this weekend, or to set up informational picket lines. (4) Destruction of pilot season. No actors, no pilots. This too would require a credible strike threat.

Put the Union on a Strike Footing

Obviously, three out of four of these leverage points require a credible strike threat. Thus, SAG leadership must develop a consensus among the membership that a strike authorization is necessary. This, in turn, would require promising that a strike would be a true last resort. The critical support of New York and regional leadership is unlikely to be offered without such a promise. Even then, it will be an uphill climb, since I’m informed that a similar promise was made but not kept in 2000, resulting in a commercials strike.

Develop a Message

The support of New York – and, hopefully, the Regional Branch Division (SAG’s branches throughout the country) – is not enough to obtain a strike authorization (which requires 75% affirmative vote of those voting). SAG must develop a one-sentence, coherent message. It doesn’t have one now. Read the push poll mailer recently sent to members, and all you’ll find is “we’re still negotiating for a better deal” and a grab bag of issues.

That’s not a compelling message. The writers had one: “New media is here, and we’re not going to get screwed again the way we did on home video.” That’s rough, guttural and compelling.

By comparison, SAG has nothing. A true message must answer the question “Why does SAG need more?” The existing deal was good enough for the roughly 50,000 performers who are members of AFTRA, and the new media template portion of the deal was good enough for the directors and writers as well. Why not SAG? A clear message is necessary.

What’s the message? Maybe “It’s a bad script.” “The studio deal’s not ready for its close up.” “The pictures didn’t get smaller, the deal got worse.” “Media giants, tiny deal.” “Actors stand tall.” I don’t know: I’m not a messaging expert, but SAG needs to hire one now.

The negotiation needs a logo and music as well. Entertainment product has these, and so do political campaigns. SAG should too – it’s common sense.

Go Public

Why isn’t the SAG Executive Director in the trades, Back Stage, the blogs, the LA Business Journal? Why hasn’t the General Counsel done a piece for the LA Daily Journal, a legal newspaper (apologies if he has – I missed it in that case) – not to mention the LA Times (there may have been an op-ed, I don’t remember, but it time for another). Where are the ads in the trades? It’s time to send the message that SAG is willing to make concessions if the studios do. That kind of transparency has a hope of moving public opinion.

Get the Reps Involved

Has there been any attempt to get the support of top entertainment lawyers or talent agents? Apparently not. Entertainment lawyers may be more realistic, given SAG’s frosty relationship with the agents. Hire one. The DGA did, and it sent a message.

Make it National

Why is the National Executive Director sitting still in Hollywood? He needs to be on the road: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and wherever large groups of members are found. Town hall meetings should be the order of the day. Organize the members and get them supportive of a strike authorization.

What’s more, there are stars all over the country – why haven’t they been activated in press conferences? Other entertainment labor unions are national as well. Significantly, the IA (craft and technical workers) has a new National Executive Director: has SAG reached out to him?

Get Membership First – the hardliners – activated as well. Do they care about SAG, or just their own faction? Probably both. They’re assertive and at least some of them are very knowledgeable. Send them out around the country.

Get Meaningful AFL-CIO Support

Where is the rest of labor? Elsewhere. We’re not seeing statements of support for SAG, and even the Writers Guild has been stingy in its public support.

Reach Out to AFTRA

Time to mend some fences. AFTRA’s probably too steamed to be a source of great support, but no harm in taking meetings and keeping them apprised. Who knows?

Take It to the Net

What’s more, SAG needs to flood the Internet. Where are the YouTube videos, the articles in the Huffington Post, the live streaming video broadcasts, the MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, the Twitter tweets? Answer: nowhere, nada, nunca, none of the above. Why? These aren’t optional, and they should be coming from the membership as well as the leadership. The union should be training its members in new media and organizing small film crews to write, produce, direct and act in videos.

The union says it cares about new media – that’s the biggest stumbling block to making a deal. Let’s see the union take its own words seriously and get online.

Reach Out to the AMPTP and Studios

To prepare for a deal, it’s time to send the message that SAG is ready to be dealmakers, not deal breakers. Reach out to the AMPTP. Let that group’s long-time executive director, who is reportedly near retiring, that he can go out on a high note if he’s willing to hold serious talks. Let his long-time deputy know that she’ll get credit too, and public thanks from SAG.

Equally important, reach out to the studio heads, who are, after all, the bosses of the AMPTP’s executive director. Recognize their differing interests, and develop a strategy.

Get the Politicians Involved

Where’s are the mayors and city councils of LA and New York. Nowhere, and that’s because the huge number of SAG members in those two cities haven’t flooded them with phone calls, emails and letters. 120,000 SAG members, most of them no doubt in LA and New York, yet no political organizing? Shame on SAG.

Even the California Governor, despite the fact that he has bigger fish to fry (like getting a state budget passed), should be good for some support, and so should the state’s senators and LA state senators, state reps and Congressional reps – but only if all of them get pressure from constituents.

Reach Out to the Analysts and Pension Funds

Frankly, the analysts won’t care unless there’s a strike threat, and even then it’s marginal, because the effect of a strike on a media conglomerates’ profits is not great (the companies are too big) and because analysts are too busy with other concerns, such as the larger U.S. economy and also their own job security as big banks institute cutbacks. Still, it’s worth a try. Likewise, pension fund managers and the like (hedge funds, private equity funds, and VCs) are occupied elsewhere, but at least keep them apprised via email blasts and conference calls.

Reach Out to the Public

Fans need to hear from the stars, the character actors and the working-class actors. Actors are sexy, colorful, compelling, and skilled at communicating. Why aren’t they in local newspapers, the wire services, magazines, and online? Stars should offer the gossip tabloids and websites (Perez Hilton and TMZ) some casual photos if they’ll run a SAG story.

Make the Guaranteed Completion Contracts Meaningful

SAG’s issued Guaranteed Completion Contracts – no-strike contracts – to several hundred small production companies. But, as the Writers Guild realized, small companies don’t matter. The Writers Guild’s efforts in this regard were only newsworthy when they issued them to the latenight shows (not applicable here) and a few large, non-AMPTP companies: Lionsgate and United Artists in particular. Time for SAG to do the same. UA won’t make much difference this time – the company’s foundering – but Lionsgate still counts.

Organize a Boycott of Star’s Marketing Efforts

Try to get the stars to refuse to do publicity. Hit the studios where it hurts. Yes, the A-listers would be in breach of their contracts, but is a studio really going to sue George Clooney for refuse to do a press junket.

More Boycotts

Boycott and picket a studio. Do the same with the theater chains – at theaters and at their headquarters. Boycott the big and/or high profile DVD sellers (Amazon, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target and Circuit City) – again, at stores in LA, New York and across the country, and at their headquarters.

Threaten the Globes and Oscars

Make clear that the Globes will once again be reduced to a cut-rate press conference and the Oscars likewise. That would hurt the studios, and ABC (which has broadcast rights to the Oscars).

Reach Out to Vendors

LA hotels, restaurants, limo services, party planners, caterers, fashion designers, and florists suffered mightily when the Globes were canceled, and the Oscars would have been worse. Get the message out to them, and get them planting a bug in the studio execs’ ears whenever they’re in contact with them. The more people pressuring the execs to get a deal done, the better.

Acknowledge that Compromises Will have to be Made

Be publicly (and privately) reasonable. Send the message to the AMPTP and the Hollywood community that SAG is not a group of unreasonable hardliners, and that SAG will compromise to get a deal made.

Get a Mediator

The writers apparently got burned when they offered a concession (abandoning a demand for an increase in DVD residuals) without doing it through a mediator. No need for SAG to suffer the same fate.

Tee up the Deal through Informal Talks, Then Get Back in the Room

Probably best to conduct as much informally with the AMPTP as possible. Come January, get back in the room, and get a deal done ASAP. If there’s no real movement, crush the Golden Globes and see a deal done in February, before the Oscars.


Now the downer. Most of the above could have, and should have, been done over the last few years. But it wasn’t, and some of that time was occupied instead by vilification of AFTRA, a strategy that led to the morass SAG finds itself in now. Will the current leadership follow these recommendations, or something like them? Sadly, probably not. The most likely forecast for the coming months is not progress, but more stalemate.