Sunday, August 16, 2009

State of the Union

My adrenaline spiked a little when I spotted the pale green envelope in my mailbox. “Money!” I thought. It was a logical assumption since the Writer’s Guild of America always sends out their residual checks in these lovely wintergreen envelopes. I was slightly disappointed to discover that instead of a check, it was a little missive from my other union, the Screen Actors Guild, containing a ballot and a form letter recommending that I vote to approve our new and long-delayed TV and film contract. As I checked the “yes” box, I couldn’t help but reflect on the 18-month circus that had finally led to this small slip of paper. If the events hadn’t been so damaging, they would have been hilarious. In case you haven’t been following the saga, here are just a few of the highlights:

Our story opens with a bizarre open letter from SAG’s former National Executive Director, Doug Allen, attacking sister union AFTRA just months before we were supposed to start joint negotiations with them. The pissed-off AFTRA leadership then broke ranks and (much to the studios' delight) negotiated a wonderfully lame contract of their own. When a more moderate faction of the SAG board (AKA “Unite for Strength”) then tried to fire Mr. Allen, SAG President Alan Rosenberg and his hard-line “Membership First” cronies all but declared civil war. This led to Mr. Rosenberg's now famous 28-hour, boardroom filibuster to block the firing. His opponents, however, found a constitutional loophole, stormed the executive offices and fired Mr. Allen anyway - not once, but twice. The following morning, Mr. Rosenberg felt moved to write a folk song about the incident and posted it on YouTube. As if that wasn't punishment enough, he then joined forces with SAG's 1st Vice President, Anne-Marie Johnson and a few other fire-breathing cohorts and together filed a lawsuit against their own union to reinstate Mr. Allen. This being an organization run by actors, none of the participants was particularly shy about issuing statements to the press, which quickly turned SAG’s internal strife into a big, embarrassing and very public soap opera.

At the peak of this shit-slinging contest, I attended one of the “informational meetings” held at the Harmony Gold Theatre in Hollywood. Mr. Rosenberg opened the meeting by stating that although we might be “walking in here as a union divided, we were going to walk out of this auditorium in complete solidarity.” That wasn’t exactly what happened. Instead, some none-too-subtle pressure was applied for us to approve a strike authorization which would have effectively handed the equivalent of a small nuclear bomb to a bunch of extremely pissed-off people. To hear our leadership tell it, the AMPTP was now being run by Darth Vader and if we didn’t act now, the entire empire would be lost. As a veteran of the recent WGA strike, I wondered why SAG thought they were going to prevail in obtaining a superior contract when all of their sister unions had failed. As various rabid strike enthusiasts took the microphone to rant against the forces of darkness, the whole event began to take on the feeling of a “McCain-Palin” rally (i.e. a lost cause covered in a thick, sugary coating of nostalgia for the good old days).

All of this hysteria was, of course, being fueled by that sign of the apocalypse, “New Media.” It’s no secret that the coming of New Media has already started altering the economics of the industry. The question on the table is (and will always be) the future of residuals. The original template for paying residuals came about in the late 1950’s and early 60’s when ideas like Cable TV, DVR’s, Blu-Ray and the Internet sounded like something from “The Jetsons.” There were exactly three TV networks to choose from and every night, every American sat down and dutifully watched at least three full hours of whatever was on. This huge captive audience was an advertising gold mine and the networks were raking it in. To their credit, the unions realized it was the perfect time to step up and demand a piece of that gargantuan pie. Not wanting to interrupt the torrential cash flow, the networks and studios saw the wisdom of cutting them a slice. Those were also the Golden Days when entertainment companies were actually entertainment companies -- as opposed to now, when most of the studios and networks are just divisions of much larger conglomerates who view their broadcasting or movie-making divisions as just one small asset out of many.

As I sat in the Harmony Gold, I wondered if SAG was keeping up with the times. In truth, labor unions all over the country are finding their effectiveness eroding. Public sentiment, once largely on the side of labor, has cooled. When I was walking the picket line in the WGA strike, I got used to the occasional “Fuck you” being hurled at us by passing cars. Apparently, there are a few folks out there who now view unions as a bunch spoiled brats who, having long ago won a choice corner of the sandbox, don’t want to share an inch of it with anybody. Lest we forget, unions have, over the last 70 years, played a major role in creating this country’s huge middle-class. They have stabilized lives and given workers opportunities to help their children achieve a stronger economic and educational foothold. Unions provide much needed medical insurance, create safe working conditions and can also raise a big stink (when a big stink is needed).

Unfortunately, while the SAG leadership was busy pantsing each other for the last 18 months, the economy tanked and the membership got stuck working under our old contract (with no pay raises). By some estimates, this delay may ultimately have cost SAG members upwards of 80 million dollars. Rumor has it that the guild is now operating at a substantial deficit and has had to lay off 8% of its staff. Plus, out of the 70 new pilots produced this season, 66 went to AFTRA.

Soon SAG will be electing new leadership. Membership First, in a effort to retake the castle, has lined up a slate that includes high-profile board candidates like Ed Harris, Martin Sheen and former SAG president, Ed Asner. “Unite for Strength” is running a slightly less well-known crew including Clark Gregg, Hill Harper and Michael O’Keefe. In a good year, approximately 30% of the membership ever votes and it’s a sad reality that well-known actors tend to get elected. Oddly, there is some kind of assumption that fame equals wisdom; that a star’s on-screen persona will work miracles at the bargaining table. With our current contract due to expire in 2011, I hope my fellow SAG members will keep in mind that negotiation sessions are not scripted. The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes they don’t even show up. And in my opinion, if the new SAG leadership doesn’t rapidly start taking all the painful, but necessary steps to merge with AFTRA, we are fucked.

I suspect that SAG, in addition to working hard to protect its members, will continue provide us with some lively entertainment. We are after all, a union made of people who are naturally predisposed to conflict and drama. I do hope that whoever takes the reins in the next election will keep in mind that (for now) it appears that broadcast TV, cable and movies are far from dead. New Media is already so in love with itself that I have no doubt it will keep us well-informed when it starts achieving its financial zenith. And when that day comes, I’ll be totally happy to lace up my Nikes, grab my picket sign and walk the line for as long as it takes to win the fair compensation required to allow us to keep doing the work we are meant to do: Entertaining people.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


Scott Ganyo said...

Amen, brother. United we stand, divided we fall. Recently, we've been divided - even within our own union. We must unite with AFTRA now or risk irrelevance.

Woody said...

Thank you. You've perfectly summarized many of the reasons I decided to run for a SAG board seat this year and why I'm running with Unite For Strength. The logic of a merged union seems obvious for many reasons, yet it has often been shown that there is no place for logic in politics. Hopefully this won't be the case in the current SAG election. Keep shining a light!
-Woody Schultz

marisa said...

Right on Brother! I am so relieved that I am reading something honest, accurate and truthful for once.

I agree with every single line of your well written article. Just as a little reminder, that the boogie man "new media is NOW media" was coined TWO YEARS AGO. Don't know about Hollywood, but the sky hasn't fallen in New York yet.


SG said...

I want to thank you for this terrific summary of the past year and a half.

Much of the fear-mongering rhetoric coming out of Anne-Marie Johnson and Alan Rosenberg's Membership First camp has taken on a cult-like tone. They spread fear and doomsday scenarios to heighten emotions, instead of looking at cold, hard facts, and acting strategically.

Competition for jurisdiction between our unions only hurts actors and AFTRA isn't going away. Love 'em or hate 'em, AFTRA's been around for over 70 years, recently received a charter from the AFL-CIO, and they just received a video of deep appreciation and congratulations from President Obama.

It seems to me that the very essence of UNION is joining forces with similarly interested parties to gain maximum leverage over your bosses, the AMPTP in our case. I agree with you that unless we SAG members finally merge with AFTRA, we're fucked. It must happen. Membership First's go-it-alone mentality is a suicide mission. SAG is already an umbrella guild comprised of not only actors, but also background artists, puppeteers, singers, dancers, stunt performers and OFF-CAMERA stunt performers and airplane pilots. These are not actors, per se, but their union with actors makes us stronger. Does MF plan to expel all these non-actors from SAG? If so, when? They seem to hold a very strong aversion to broadcasters and disc jockeys. What's the difference?

For the above reasons, I'll be voting for the entire "Unite for Strength" slate and urge all reasonable SAG members to do the same. For New York members, please vote the pro-merger candidates of USAN.

Please also consider donating to their campaigns, which are extremely expensive. If you're wealthy, please be generous. If you're struggling, even $5 or $10 on paypal will help cover the costs of postage and mailers.

Thanks again, David, for a great post.


marymac said...

Perfect in every way except it's REINS in the sentence

"I do hope that whoever takes the reigns in the next election will keep in mind that (for now) it appears that broadcast TV, cable and movies are far from dead."

The homophone is ironically apt, but nevertheless a small flaw in an otherwise spot-on observation.

Anonymous said...

Are you aware that an anti union strikebreaker service is using your blog to advertise through google?


Anonymous said...

Really Marymac? I would have hated to be your friend in high school. I don't care if writing or editing is what you happen to do for a living (yes, an assumption on my part), you must drive the people around you crazy.

Can't ya just email him privately?

Anonymous said...

amazing description of events, proving, yet again, the "truth" is in the eye of the beholder.

dean says:

"(unions)They have stabilized lives and given workers opportunities to help their children achieve a stronger economic and educational foothold. Unions provide much needed medical insurance, create safe working conditions and can also raise a big stink (when a big stink is needed)."

well, dean, a "big stink" was needed. when the producers TELL YOU in the ny times in july '07 they want to "end residuals" - it's a smart move to take them at their word, and plan on NOT letting them do that. All the rosenberg/allen bashing is such revisionist crap.

AFTRA? DESERVES having bullshit called on it's low-balling, backstabbing approach to "solidarity" with sag in the last, oh, let's just stop at 20 years, shall we? the FACTUAL list of AFTRA low-balling, actor-damaging deals aftra had struck, placed by allen in the sag fall '07 magazine was met with such mouth-foaming hysteria by the aftra-merger-heads, you'd think he blamed them for the holocaust. no. he simply said: "here's what they've done, and here's how it fucks up the sag actor." that's no crime, it's a public service, if you are remotely interested in "what's best for actors," as roberta reardon et al always preface their low-ball deals with.

matt mulhern

Anonymous said...

and, it would be swell if we all remember that the "moderates" including ufs, all voted in near-unanimous or unanimous votes SUPPORTING rosenberg and allen, then, IMMEDIATELY began undermining the leadership, thereby stalling the SAV effort THEY had WRITTEN (richard masur) and UNANIMOUSLY APPROVED.

these are FACTS dean. care to contest them? good luck.

look, when the amptp TELLS you they are going to fuck you, that's when you need a "big stink."

now? we're screwed. why? ufs, ny, rbd, and usan.

what is their solution? merger. something that has been discussed and voted down for 60 YEARS by sag.

I think, maybe it's time we move on? 60 years? helloo?

one union -sag - repping ALL tv and film actors. don't ask for a 10 point plan, first things first. we need the presidency back in adult, competent hands (amj) and a strong majority that doesn't want to see sag destroyed, which, you wanna keep in mind, is the practical result of merger with aftra into a third, separate entity.

matt mulhern

Anonymous said...

merger with aftra = the death of sag.

let's go into a big, fat bureaucracy, aligning ourselves with recording artists, and broadcasters, with completely different needs and agendas than tv and film actors! that's a GREAT IDEA. why?

Strength in numbers!

there is NO "strength in numbers" when this philosophical divide exists: "collaboration and compliance with producers - moderates" vs. "knowing you have to fight to even KEEP what you have, let alone make gains - hard-liners."

it doesn't matter if it's in a sag/aftra frankenstein merger, OR a hollowed out weak sag, which is what we have now.

you have to get it TOGETHER, pull up your socks, and understand the producers are trying to break the union, and the negotiating collapse of sag, thanks to the "moderates," that lead to the signing of this 2009 tv/theatrical contract made the producers very, very, very happy! why? they see NO THREAT TO FURTHER CONCESSIONS.

matt mulhern

Anonymous said...

why? because YOU want us lead by the richard masur philosophy, which ufs basically has a hot line to - a former sag president who said, during his presidency, "there will be NO strike during my presidency."

hmmm. what if obama said "I'm taking all options OFF the table regarding north korea!"

uh, that would be really, really stupid, to say and to do.

we need to realize the "sunset clause" which anti-mf entertainment attorney, and expert on this whole debacle, jonathan handel HIMSELF called "a meaningless fig leaf" for change in 2011, and union alignment" despite NO precedent of EVER HAPPENING before in the history of sag, is going to save us in 2011. the dga, full of important producers, just BEGINNING to see how the 2009 tv/theatricval new media terms are starting to put mondo more money in their pockets, and the future, under the 2009 new media terms, looks FANTASTIC for THEIR wallets - is going to STRIKE WITH SAG IN 2011? the wga, whose own disastrous strike ended in defeat, will do it AGAIN in support of sag? the eternally backstabbing, self-interested aftra will align with sag in solidarity? are you HIGH?

Anonymous said...

handel has suggested (again, this guy is basically on YOUR side) a "percentage of distributors gross across ALL platforms," acknowledging in that piece, that residuals ARE going away (as some of the more rabid "moderates" have been bizarrely denying) and that without a REAL upgrade in the compensation system for the sag actor, going into the 21st century, the profession of sag middle-class actor, as we've known it, is pretty much going to DIE.

as you said dean, these are cold-blooded, bottom line businessmen, leaders of multi-billion dollar conglomerates of which the amptp are smallish entertainment sub-divisions. they want ONE thing reported to them from the heads of the studios and networks they own: revenues UP, costs, DOWN.

matt mulhern

Anonymous said...

sag actors have an INDISPENSABLE service they provide the entertainment industry. WE MAKE THEIR PRODUCT. HELLO?

we strike? or even officially threaten to? that means ALL MOVIES and ALL SAG TV STOPS ON A DIME.

THAT'S leverage. you want to see the PRODUCERS shake in their boots for once, instead of the weak-kneed union we have right now?

walk into the 2011 negotiations WITH AN SAV in hand and say, "we want a fair deal - and if we don't get it, we strike."


sag wasn't asking for some kind of WINDFALL in 2008-2009 - "better terms than the other unions - how dare they!" (yeah, better terms than OTHER unions that DON'T rely on residuals for 1/2 their income - sometimes more), sag was asking for a LIVING WAGE.

We have ALL THE LEVERAGE WE NEED to get the FAIR contract we MUST HAVE TO SURVIVE. but, we need to STOP allowing "moderate" fantasies of "experimenting" and "flexibility" and "room to grow" being given to the AMPTP in our contracts, in exchange for fair, let alone good contracts, down the line, as just what they are - FANTASIES.

matt mulhern

here's a shocker: you don't agree to the union busting contract FIRST - THEN "study the data" and expect to find a reasonable amptp across the bargaining table from you in 2011.

well, thanks to the "moderates" - THAT'S WHAT WE JUST DID.

sag actors - you want a profession? you want a shot at a middle-class living? you want to hand over a profession to those behind us, just as OUR predecessors handed one over to us, the result of threat of strike or strike for EVERY SINGLE MAJOR UPGRADE IN BENEFITS SAG HAS EVER GOTTEN? you better start thinking about electing a CLEAR majority to go get that done, because the "moderates" have put us so far behind the 8 ball with this last contract, it's going to be the toughest thing to pull off sag has EVER tried.

but we need to be on the same page, in ONE union - SAG - to even BEGIN to recover what we've lost, and have BEEN losing, over the last 10, 15, years.

quotes? gone. maximums? are now minimums. clip consent? gone. product placement protections? gone. full force majeure, backed by the union? gone. residuals? on the run, and as content moves inexorably into new media, gone for good, soon enough (that's 1/2 our income folks - sometimes MORE!)

I'm running for the ny division board, and I'd sure appreciate the chance to get to work.



Tom said...

Well, David Dean -

Welcome to the toxic world of Matt Mulhern, who cannot enter a blog without discoursing with his own rancorous, angry, inaccurate self.

Best of luck to you, and thank you for a really balanced and true account of the past period of time, David Dean.

Inoculations to Mulhern are being provided in New York City - but don't worry, he won't be around long.

Anonymous said...

hey ligon

(tom) please - do the readers of deans blog a service, and contest ONE THING I WROTE rather than your bullshit generalities.

this is tom ligon folks, psycho extraordinaire, thrown off the ny board and not allowed EVER again ANYWHERE near it - not if it means world peace.

matt mulhern

DC Douglas said...

Holy cow! Wow, David, you waded into the hornets' nest!

Well written, regardless of POV/Accuracy/Being on the Right/Wrong side/Producers are evil/must kill bunnies!!!

Personally, they screwed up when they didn't merge. They will continually be screwed until they do. When the last strip of celluloid is digitized, SAG will be dust.

I am not on either side. Everybody scares me. I like Tahiti.

David said...

As usual, an excellent summary of the real truth behind what's going on, and why I'm running for board. I hope I have your vote and support, my friend - I will do my best to make sure that the rhetoric is dialed down, and the productivity is dialed up.

The internet is a scary, undulating, heartbreaking place that can fool you with its promise, and surprise you with its natural resilience. It's not a "market" to hang your hat on, even for a few months - things change at a pace far faster than ever has experienced by those who would claim to know the future.

Having worked the Internet and online entertainment for over 30 years, from the days of Compuserve and AOL, through Yahoo, Google and CNET, I'm looking forward to actually using facts, however temporal, however permanent, rather than conjecture to help make my decisions.

I'm number 19 on your SAG ballot, and hopefully, number one in your heart.

Thanks again, David Dean.

David H. Lawrence XVII

michelle said...

Well David,

It is clear this one hit a nerve. And you thought no one was reading this brilliantly crafted blog:)

Keep telling it like you see!