Hollywood Guilds’ “Annus Horribilis”

On a day of celebration for the British aristocracy, it is not going too far to recall the Queen’s reference in 1992 to the royal family’s “annus horribilis” when looking back at the bargaining round completed recently by the Hollywood guilds.

Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood has done some serious digging into the backstory on this year’s negotiations. She confirms my thesis that the Actors unions, now firmly in the hands of moderate “go along to get along” leaders, had no serious strategy other than getting a quick deal in order to move on to merger.

What is perhaps most troubling about the many important revelations in the column is the very serious financial health the guilds find themselves in. This appears to have driven the guilds’ strategy, particularly that of SAG, which squandered the concession it had won in the last round to coordinate bargaining timelines with the WGA.

The inability or unwillingness to exploit that concession must be considered the most galling aspect of the David White era at the Guild.

Readers of Vallywood! will recall that the moderate faction promised a quick end to negotiations after installing industry lawyer White as SAG NED more than two years ago (after, understandably, ousting Membership First and its NED, the ex-linebacker Doug Allen, whose leadership only went from bad to worse). I wrote at the time, and explained to Guild members who asked for my views off line, that this promise was naive and sure enough so it proved as the Producers attempted to use the delays caused by Membership First to undermine the long held Guild goal of coordinated contact expiration dates.

White and the moderates were caught like a deer in the headlights by this and struggled to regain that goal but to do so had to give in on several other demands. They showed themselves unprepared to do battle in a serious and thoughtful way with a far more strategically prepared adversary.

Nonetheless White and the moderates made it clear to everyone how significant the coordinated contract date was to SAG. As the LA Times wrote about the deal:

“The breakthrough came earlier this month when the sides reached a compromise over the most contentious issue: the expiration date of a new contract. SAG leaders insisted that their new contract run through June 2011 so that the union could line up its next round of negotiations with the expiring contracts of other Hollywood talent unions.” (emphasis added)

Fast forward a couple of years. Instead of using that hard won concession to build a common strategy across the Guilds (something, frankly, that would have required precisely the serious trade union skills that NED White clearly lacks) SAG – like their adversaries Membership First had done in 2008 – once again left its brothers and sisters at the WGA and DGA in the lurch and hammered out a quickie deal in six weeks, seven months before the contract expired. SAG and its much smaller sister guild, AFTRA, did not even give coordinated bargaining a moment’s thought.

Finke quotes her WGA sources summarizing what happened like this:

“[T]hey made a crappy deal on everything other than pensions and health and left the other two creative guilds hanging out to dry.”

SAG and AFTRA meanwhile continue their dance towards merger, which will, of course, solve little (although it may help stop the bleeding that Finke makes clear is impacting both the guilds’ pension and health funds). Instead of a constant conflict between two unions the conflict will go on within whatever form the merged entity takes, assuming the members fall for this bureaucratic gambit. Even worse, the issues that actors face will get only partial attention as the merged staff, no doubt dominated by AFTRA which seems to be in much favor these days in the industry and at the AFL-CIO, have to pay attention to several other occupational groups such as broadcast journalists whose talents and working conditions are far different than those of film and TV actors.

Still absent will be a serious long term strategy that all factions can agree on for the entire industry as it faces unprecedented challenges from new business models (see Netflix) and new financial/production structures (see Media Rights Capital).

For nearly a decade now the Guilds have been outmaneuvered by their agents, their producers and the paid staff of their own unions. It won’t be too long before the Producers go for the kill, pushing for new forms of non-union content and then attempting to bust the guilds once and for all. They will cite the pressures on them from Wall Street, the distribution channel and competing platforms for their product. No single union no matter how large can deal with such a complicated problem alone. SAG could merge with the Teamsters and still not be able to tackle this issue. It requires coordination across industries and unions. It requires a labor movement. Sadly, the AFL-CIO seems unprepared and unwilling to provide the industry unions with the intellectual resources and leadership needed to fashion an alternative path. After their blundering abdication (to borrow another term from the royal context) in Wisconsin, on a far larger stage than Hollywood in fact, we should not be surprised.

2 thoughts on “Hollywood Guilds’ “Annus Horribilis””

  1. Perhaps, since a lawyer’s work-product may be pretty much predictable, day in and day out; and, that such work-product, when completed, usually, remains the sole property of the law firm where s/he is employed, such corporate attorneys may simply not be able to comprehend the uniqueness of the creative process; not just the mental, but the physicial and the emotional demands; plus, the commitment that may be required of Writers’ and Actors’ for the sake of ART?

    After all, without, creative artists, Writers (original scripts) and Actors (to breathe Life into the scripts) there would be no Theatre ARTS.

  2. On NOV.5.2008, after the writers strike had ended, the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild filed an amicus curiae brief in United States Supreme Court in support of a multitude of Petitioners ranging from Universal Studios to CBS to The Cartoon Network in Cable News Network, Inc., et al. v. CSC Holdings, Inc, et al., who were seeking review of a Second Circuit decision turning back Petitioners’ copyright challenge to CABLEVISION’s proposed “remove DVR” service.

    It was the first cyber law case in the Supreme Court but regarding disclosure to the members of the unions, the amicus curiae brief was a confidential matter.

    This is what Anthony R. Segall and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, general counsels of, respectively, the Writers Guild of America West and the Screen Actors Guild wrote to raise the Court’s awareness of the issues before it:

    “Long before a project begins production – often when the project is still just an idea being floated about a production company – the value of the contemplated work is estimated based on projections of potential revenue in each exploitation window. Content creators make decisions about what projects to “greenlight”, which writers and directors to hire, which actors to cast, where to shoot, and countless other issues based on settled understandings about the marketplace.

    Creative talent, particularly actors and writers, depend and rely on the content creators’ ability to maximize revenue from each window for their continuing livelihood.”

    Writers had been on strike as the content creators against our employers, the producers of the content we create. Actors were threatening to strike as the intellectual creators of our own performances.

    Yet, in the Supreme Court of the United States, our unions disputed us, or, more accurately, stated on the record against our interests, that our employers create the screenplays we are hired to write and the performances we are hired to perform.

    In Friday’s Los Angeles Times, AFTRA Executive Director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth was quoted regarding a merger of SAG and AFTRA:

    “We sit across the table from the same employers, so it really makes no sense for us not to be under the same umbrella.”

    But Ms. Hedgpeth does not sit across a table from our employers.

    Our employers are multi-national companies.

    For example, Sony Pictures Entertainment is the television and film production/distribution unit of Sony Corporation, a Japanese multinational conglomerate corporation and the world’s fifth largest media conglomerate

    ESPN is 80 percent owned by ABC, Inc., which is an indirect subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company.

    The Disney Interactive Media Group is a segment of The Walt Disney Company responsible for the creation and delivery of Disney branded interactive entertainment and informational content across multiple platforms including online, mobile and video game consoles around the world.

    And Universal Music Group is the largest business group and family of record labels in the recording industry, the largest of the “big four” record companies by its commanding market share and its multitude of global operations and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the French media conglomerate Vivendi.
    And Universal Music Group owns a music publisher Universal Music Publishing Group which became the world’s largest following the acquisition of BMG Music Publishing in May 2007.

    But of course what we need to do ASAP is merge.

    In the same L.A.Times story, from AFTRA President Roberta Reardon:

    “I think having one united force of workers facing the future together will give us more leverage and power.”

    SAG already is one united force of workers, specifically a united force of actors, and the future has already begun and not just here in Hollywood.

    We have given up our right to bargain for ourselves to exclusive representatives with no bargaining creds whatsoever.

    We have no leaders. Those who claim to be our leaders are being led.

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