George Clooney, an actor and a union man, emerged today as a potential leader in the Hollywood actors’ battle. While some of the trades (particularly Variety) painted his letter as “neutral” because he did not take a direct stance on the AFTRA ratification vote, this misses the point.
First, Clooney makes a strong statement about the need to resolve the tension between SAG and AFTRA. He seems to understand that you might succeed in kicking 13 AFTRA reps out of the negotiating room but you cannot kick the 44,000 dual cardholders who elected those reps out of the union.
Second, he makes an even more important statement about why the A-list talent must be a part of the Guild, financially and strategically. He asks his fellow A-listers to understand the precarious nature of their profession and to pony up with financial support during the prime of their careers when it looks as if they need the union least.
Of course, even then they really do need the union. Even A-listers appreciate the structural improvements (like new media jurisdiction) that SAG makes in the master agreements because it takes one issue off the table when their lawyers negotiate their deals. (As someone who negotiated complex deals for years I can assure you that anytime a deal point can be taken off the table it is most welcome).
And, third, he puts some real ideas on the table that may not be perfect but at least point in the right direction. The key is the need to provide the kind of assurance to the Guild that the potential for windfall profits for the industry will not occur again as they did with DVD revenue.
He proposes a variation of what I had suggested yesterday: some way of credibly assuring the genuine re-opening of negotiations as the new media environment evolves. While a monitoring body of 10 A-listers may not be the appropriate vehicle it at least makes clear the need for ongoing oversight in a period of rapid business development.
A “once-every-three-years” old-style collective bargaining structure is not very helpful when rapid technological change is taking place. In the early days of auto unionization for example when similarly rapid change was underway, contracts were for a year not three or five years. Those longer term deals only became feasible when industries matured and stabilized. That might have been true for a period of time in entertainment but certainly is no longer the case. We will not recognize either the delivery systems or the business models a decade hence.
Thus, the value of Clooney’s proposals: reinforcing internal union solidarity and a “trust but verify” approach to the producers. This is the basis of a solution to the present impasse.
But, of course, Clooney is only one member among 120,000. He has no organized base of support in the Guild and so it is up to the established factions to make something of what he has put on paper. Let’s hope that the key leaders can sit in a room and tackle this, for the sake of the current negotiations and for the long complex process that lies ahead.