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The SAG Negotiations: Why George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Others May Have Exercised a Faulty Strategy

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I like George Clooney and I like Tom Hanks. Who doesn't? From their screen personas to their amiable chats with David Letterman. They seem like nice guys and appear committed to good works and deeds, from Clooney's work on behalf of Sudanese refugees to Hanks' paying homage to our military veterans.

However, I'm concerned about their outspoken efforts to head off a SAG strike. Not because it would obviously be preferable to avoid a work stoppage so soon after the three and a half-month WGA industrial action, but because what they appear to be doing works against the very potential for which the Screen Actors Guild was originally created.

It's all well and good to make statements of a general kind regarding the need for the conflicting parties (the AMPTP and SAG) to be bargaining at the negotiating table, but the methods these well-intentioned actors have employed seem to be of a hurrying design that, by their very nature, take the air out of the balloon of solidarity and play right into the hands of the AMPTP.

After two months or so of the WGA strike, Clooney appeared a bit too neutral in his calls for both sides to get back to the table, perhaps forgetting that it was the AMPTP that walked out and refused to come back when the WGA rejected, among other things, its offer to pay a paltry $250 for unlimited streaming for one year of programming on the Internet. Although he is a member of the WGA, as well as the DGA and of course SAG, one might have hoped he would have taken the AMPTP publicly to task for its meager offer, considering that their methodology was so obviously true to form, following the same tradition and niggardly manner with which the studio and network chieftains rewarded the WGA, SAG and the DGA after the cable medium exploded.

While it's true that Clooney and most other A-list stars caused the demise of the Golden Globes and threatened to do the same for the Oscars, it might have been helpful as well to continue to publicly remind the AMPTP that they have been selfish with their burgeoning profits. That it was the AMPTP members who were really responsible for the industry shutdown, and that the WGA had acted in self-defense, joined in large part by the SAG leadership and many principled actors who walked alongside the writers on their picket lines.

To many in the industry, the writers were never the villains and were forced to play the hand they'd been dealt, not having had the temerity to do so for almost 20 years -- years in which no significant gains were made by writers, actors or directors.

In typical fashion the DGA settled a bit too quickly, but what improvements they did manage to get on top of the contract originally offered to the writers in December were almost universally presumed to be due to the then two months writers strike itself. I admit to having been a bit concerned when Clooney said in a statement during that period, "I'm very pleased with the new (DGA) agreement and I hope it helps speed up the negotiations with the WGA." There was not much to be pleased with that agreement, though admittedly there were some prominent WGA writers who said something similar, but they didn't have the sterling reputation that the much respected Clooney has as one who continually speaks out for the unjustly treated.

Fortunately, the WGA held out a month or so longer and built on those gains, which, though modest and not nearly what those of us in the "above the line" facets of the industry deserved, considering it was the first show of muscle any Guild had shown in so long a time, it was deemed to be enough for the time being. A good start. A foot in the door for the future coming shortly down the road.

However, the SAG leadership, led by President Alan Rosenberg and Executive Director Doug Allen, correctly viewed the DGA template as not sufficient. And SAG, as in the case of the DGA, has an immediate shutdown capability not possible by the WGA. Why shouldn't SAG be able to enhance the WGA deal and take advantage of the now proven reality that the AMPTP folks certainly know the creative forces in this town mean business?

That's why I sincerely and respectfully suggest to George Clooney that he was wrong when at the Oscar nominee luncheon he said, "I think there's a lot of strike fatigue, and I think you actually start losing negotiating power." It's precisely because there is such fatigue in the town that the AMPTP would be hard-pressed to take on a union that is even more capable than the WGA to continue the havoc already wrought onto their respective businesses.

Why wouldn't any reasonable person believe that SAG could get more, which is why I think it was a tremendous mistake for Clooney, Hanks, Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, four extremely well-known stars for whom I have the utmost regard and respect, to take out ads in the Hollywood trade papers urging SAG to immediately make its way to the bargaining table, though there were almost four months before the contract ended.

And why would two of my favorites, Sally Field and Rob Lowe join Clooney and Hanks in attending a much publicized get-together at SAG President Alan Rosenberg's house? Didn't they know it would be interpreted as some sort of strong-arm tactic, a coup d'etat of sorts or the promise of one, followed by sure to come speculative whispers pervading the industry that there might perhaps be in the planning a mass financial core exodus? Was there a similar meeting by the stars with AMPTP executives or studio/network chieftains? If so, why wasn't it reported? Certainly these significant actors, all of whom I would die for the chance to work with, whose combined efforts make millions and millions of dollars in TV/Film production for these companies, could have wielded as heavy a stick with them.

Don't they realize that their ads and publicized meetings send a very important message to the AMPTP, even as they unwittingly (I'm sure) castrate the leadership of their Guild? It may be all well and good to say their main concerns are for the rank and file actors and other studio workers who would be affected by another strike, but the fact is unmistakably clear that, while all (including the big stars) would be impacted by another cessation of production, the heavyweight actors will not profit meaningfully from whatever monetary gains might be further achieved by the Internet and/or DVD bumps SAG successfully reaps by staring the AMPTP down.

I truly don't believe that Clooney, Hanks nor most other stars who've been outspoken in this regard are out to hurt their Guild and their actor colleagues, but it's only logical that what they're doing diminishes the AMPTP's fear of possible consequences, because if they continue this course of action the AMPTP has to believe (I would) that there's no way there will be a SAG strike this year. And thus, whenever the SAG talks get started, they won't increase their offer a farthing, because without a strike threat you don't get meaningful gains.

The writers made some gains -- and many are significant -- because they had the fortitude to strike. However, even with the tremendous courage displayed (and shared by our SAG supporters), plus the financial sacrifices that impacted so many people in the entire industry, the WGA leadership is disappointed it didn't get the amounts to which the WGA Membership are entitled. The SAG leadership agrees and with its added muscle could well get all of us somewhat more, which of course would have the added effect of making all of our negotiating efforts that much easier the next time around.

However, it appears that there may be some SAG factions who believe it would be unseemly to ask for more than the WGA was able to achieve and are willing to risk that possibility by the actions they have undertaken. I believe this is a big mistake, which is why I also believe that well meaning folks like Clooney, Hanks et al, didn't think this one altogether through.

These A-listers are mostly decent men and women. They regularly support good causes. They are likable and have enormous power and should be vigorously asserting it against our common foe instead of perhaps innocently undercutting the collective family of artists, who deserve much more than the AMPTP has been willing to share.