Friday, February 20, 2009

What Can SAG Do Next?

Talks between the Screen Actors Guild and the studio alliance (AMPTP) have collapsed, and the studios have offered SAG a take it or leave it offer. SAG probably has insufficient internal support for a strike, the offer is a bitter pill, and the Guild is in disarray, riven by internal political disputes and losing out dramatically this pilot season to its smaller rival, AFTRA. Add to that, the commercials contract negotiations start next week, and with SAG in a weakened state, the results aren’t likely to be great there either.

What to do? At the risk of sounding too much like of a moon-beam Californian, perhaps judo is in order. No, not so that SAG leaders can take out their frustrations on the previous hard-line SAG leadership that is largely responsible for this mess. Rather than the usual internecine fighting—again, attributable largely to the hard-liners—the martial arts this time should be applied against the studios instead.

And what does that mean? Judo, Wikipedia reminds us, “is the principle of using one's opponent's strength against him and adapting well to changing circumstances.” SAG is weak at this time, and the studios are strong. So, if the studios think this offer is one the membership should vote on—their statement implied as much—perhaps SAG should comply.

In other words, send the offer out—but with no recommendation. That could take the form of a statement to the effect that “SAG leadership is unable to recommend this deal to the membership, but here it is; you tell us.” Or, leadership might even include a recommendation that the members vote no. Either way, the time to do so is this Saturday’s national board meeting, so that SAG can demonstrate unity and resolve before the commercials negotiations commence.

The hard-liners at the studios may have made a big mistake here. There were some simple enhancements they could have added to the deal that would have allowed SAG’s new leadership to save face and argue in the boardroom that the offer should go out with a yes recommendation. There would still probably have been a minority report urging a no vote— I believe such a report is required if at least 25% of the voting power of the board so requests, as would be the case here—but the fight for ratification would have been engaged. Instead, they chose to send out an offer one of whose highlights they tout as the recognition that “dancing on hard and slippery surfaces may qualify as hazardous activity.” Isn’t that just peachy.

Obviously, the studio hard-liners are counting on SAG to be weak. That may turn out to be a dangerous bet for the AMPTP. Recommending this deal would probably be political suicide for the moderates on the SAG board, particularly the Hollywood-based Unite for Strength faction. So, they’re unlikely to push for a yes recommendation. And if the deal proves unratifiable, the studios will have no choice but to add enhancements if they want a deal at all—and they do, so that feature production can resume with absolute certitude that there will be no strike.

Thus, the studio hard-liners’ hopes for a compliant Guild might be realized, but not in the way they wanted. This time, perhaps they can be schooled not just in an Asian martial art, but in an English-language aphorism as well: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.


Subscribe to my blog ( for more about SAG, or digital media law generally. Go to the blog itself to subscribe via RSS or email. Or, follow me on Twitter, friend me on Facebook, or subscribe to my Huffington Post articles.