The new Octopus?

This piece in today’s New York Times tries to suggest that innovative financial structures put together by Hollywood talent agencies will benefit actors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The model described in this article in fact represents a potent threat to established Hollywood unions like the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA. Over many decades those unions aimed to establish common labor standards and wage floors.

Key to this effort was an agreement that reined in talent agents preventing them from standing on both sides of a deal – representing talent while also taking a piece of the action on the production side. But the elixir of of block buster movies distributed across platforms (Theatrical, TV, DVD, Mobile, Internet) and countries is providing a few top agencies a tempting opportunity to once again stand on both sides of the barganining table, representing talent while also acting as producer/distibutors.

Briefly, the Times article describes the key changes in Union-Agency relations as follows:

“An overall franchise agreement under which the Screen Actors Guild restricted the right of agencies to engage in film production expired in 2001, and Hollywood’s major agencies have since operated without a formal agreement with that guild.”

The Times blithely suggests that the rules – codified in California labor law – that keep agents on talent’s side of the bargaining table belongs to the era when “models were sometimes sent for hair and makeup work by operators with a close connection to their agencies.” When our national paper of record starts talking this way about a key piece of labor legislation you can bet that the lobbyists from the agencies and their Wall Street backers will be on the way to Sacramento soon.

What the Times fails to mention is that the ban on conflicts of interest in union-agent relations were really driven by a method of controlling labor that originated with the gangster elements that used to heavily influence Hollywood and that served as a model for the deal that MCA head Lew Wasserman cut with SAG President Ronald Reagan. Only a threatened federal antitrust lawsuit stopped the gutting of the Guild then. Now the agents are at it once again, relying on the inability or unwillingness of SAG’s leadership under Bob Pisano, a studio lawyer and director of a company that distributed DVDs (Netflix) who somehow ended as Executive Director of the Guild!

So what the Times tries to portray as “oh so modern” in its profile of one of the fianncial arms of the Endeavor talent agency is in fact a trick invented by the Capone influenced MCA of old brought to life in a different but similarly intimidating form.

Unfortunately for the vast majority of Hollywood actors and writers there is little evidence that their unions have begun to grapple with the implications of this resurgence of yellow unionism in the form of talent agencies working both sides of the street. This is not a battle that can be won through ordinary collective bargaining.

Tilting Hollywood%u2019s Balance of Power to Talent Agency Clients – New York Times