Hearing helps healing

HOLLYWOOD — Key Hollywood players took tentative steps Friday toward resolving the complex regulatory dispute among agents, managers and actors.

“It is important to state upfront that we do not consider agents or managers either our adversaries or our enemies,” said Richard Dreyfuss, speaking as SAG’s committee chair at a state legislative hearing in downtown Los Angeles. “They are our colleagues, associates and in many cases our friends. We are not here today to punish either talent agents or personal managers.”

The nine-hour hearing, though providing no resolution on the sticky issue of loosening financial-interest rules for agents, gave participants the opportunity to express support for a deal, air out positions publicly, and offer guidance on how strongly held their stances are.

SAG prexy William Daniels elaborated on his earlier statement that the labor commissioner cannot lawfully consent to the proposal — a position staunchly opposed by the Assn. of Talent Agents. But, in a move that surprised many observers, Daniels did not submit a written opinion from an attorney to back up that contention and SAG officials indicated they plan to solve the dispute at the bargaining table rather than dragging the California state government into the picture.

In a key moment, SAG attorney David Alter said the union will not seek legislative help on clarifying the role of the labor commissioner even after being asked specifically by State Sen. Kevin Murray (D-L.A.), a former talent agent, if SAG desired that approach.

Alter’s declaration followed the assertion by David Gurley, staff counsel for labor commissioner Art Lujan, that his office would welcome “guidance” from the legislature as to how to proceed if the ATA’s proposal is approved by SAG. But his vague answers to questions indicated little enthusiasm by Lujan for entering into the long-running dispute.

The hearing at the Ronald Reagan building in downtown Los Angeles drew such thesps as Richard Crenna and Elliott Gould and execs such as WMA’s Walt Zifkin, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, ICM’s Jeff Berg and Brillstein-Grey’s Brad Grey. State Senate President pro-tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) chaired with state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-L.A.) and Murray.

On the surface, it seemed little had changed in the two-year dispute between SAG and tenpercenters, who want decades-old financial-interest restrictions to be eased. SAG reps continued to insist they will not alter their master franchise agreement to allow agents to own and be owned by production companies up to 49%, while leading agents again insisted that the change is key to the sector’s economic health.

Earlier in the session, agency toppers asserted that their proposal to loosen financial-interest regs will revitalize their shops and help actors. Execs called the proposal to enable tenpercenters to more easily tap into financial resources as a win-win that will generate more work for thesps.

“This discussion is about growth,” William Morris CEO Zifkin said. “We need greater bargaining strength against vertically integrated giants. We’re dealing with limited buyers who control production and distribution.”

Without the easing of rules, agents will face increased marginalization, CAA partner Bryan Lourd said. “The artists’ community needs a strong agency community,” he added.

Agents took a notably conciliatory tone toward SAG, asserting that the agents can work out a deal by the time the rules expire on Jan. 20. ATA exec director Karen Stuart noted, “Four months is a long time in our business.”

Lourd also admitted that tenpercenters should have done a better job in communicating their “vision” to SAG.

Pol skeptical

Burton expressed skepticism that a conflict of interest will not emerge if the financial-interest rules are eased. But agents insisted that protections proposed by ATA will circumvent that. They also contended that the state rules, under which agents are licensed, do not need to be changed.

ICM’s Jeff Berg insisted that agents do not want to become producers even if the rules are changed. He also said the state’s Talent Agency Act, which SAG is seeking to revamp, “has stood the test of time. The real issue is to get back to the table. I’m confident we can get a deal done.”

SAG and ATA have not negotiated since last November.

The hearings were mostly cordial except for one instance — a comment by Daniels that thesps who speak out on such issues will find it more difficult to obtain representation. “You’ll have trouble getting another agent if you’re labeled as a troublemaker,” he said.

That statement prompted derision by dozens among the 150 attendees, leading to a perturbed Burton to call for quiet.

Tougher regs lauded

SAG received a more positive reception with its request to toughen regulations on managers and agents. Specifically, the legislators gave an initial endorsement to a SAG proposal on filing civil complaints against agents and managers.

Essentially, the proposal expands the “standing” provision of state regs so that other entities — agents and mangers along with SAG itself — could stop abuses against struggling actors.

Burton also said he would favor toughening up penalties but was adamant that they should not become criminal penalties, partly because district attorneys would be reluctant to prosecute.

The legislators were noncommittal on whether to back SAG’s proposal to eliminate the “safe harbor” provision of the Talent Agency Act, which enables managers and agents to work together. SAG has said the rule creates a loophole under which unregulated managers can perform agent functions.

Managers testified that repeal of the “safe harbor” provision would backfire by limiting choices for thesps. AFTRA prexy John Connolly endorsed SAG’s proposals on toughening penalties and broadening standing for complaints but took no position on “safe harbor.”

Connolly also gave no indication of AFTRA’s position on financial-interest restrictions. ATA and AFTRA are set to begin talks on their franchise agreement later this month.

Burton also announced that the panel will conduct a hearing on the rules about agency packaging to address concerns that the practice prevents competitive bidding for talent.

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