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 in my hand. 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 the 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 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.
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 www.partsandlabor.tv