SAG gives tepid OK on agents

Vote division indicates thesps' approval may be tricky

A deeply divided national board late Monday gave SAG’s tentative deal with agents a lukewarm endorsement, approving the pact on a 57-44 vote.

The leadership’s OK, which came shortly after 9 p.m., had been expected and sets up a vote by SAG’s 91,000 members with ballots going out April 3 for return on April 18. But with the board’s “no” votes topping 25%, the referendum will include a so-called “minority report” detailing the arguments against the pact.

The division within the board room indicates that pact backers face a tricky task in persuading rank-and-file thesps to endorse the deal. The three-year deal calls for swapping loosened ownership restrictions on talent agencies plus allowing agents $8 million in annual commissions in exchange for preserving SAG’s master franchise agreement and creating a pair of new funds to benefit actors.

The vote by the board came at the end of a day-long special meeting, two days after Melissa Gilbert won the presidency again in a re-run with a resounding 57% vote over Valerie Harper’s 34%. Gilbert had been a member of SAG’s negotiating committee, which signed off on the deal with the Assn. of Talent Agents Feb. 22 on a 10-2 vote.

“I am pleased that the majority of the board has seen fit to give the entire SAG membership the opportunity to review and vote on this very complex agreement and allowed each member to have a voice in this important process,” Gilbert said following the meeting.

Harper’s running mate Kent McCord, who was re-elected treasurer, was named chairman of the minority committee and said, “The minority voice will speak loudly and clearly about the pitfalls of this agreement.”

McCord noted that SAG staff began campaigning for the deal two weeks ago by issuing press releases and hiring PR specialists Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane. “We’re hoping the union exercises restraint in presenting its position because of the large ‘no’ vote,” he added.

McCord said he had been unsuccessful in securing a pledge from CEO Bob Pisano of equal allocation of funds to both sides for presentation of arguments.

Gilbert’s clout will receive a test in the voting since a significant group of SAG’s elected leaders oppose the pact. That unease dates back to early 2000 when dozens of high-profile members told SAG leaders that they should not compromise on the issue, leading to the collapse of another tentative deal with the ATA.

Harper, board member Richard Dreyfuss and secretary Elliott Gould have opposed the new deal, which revamps SAG’s master franchise agreement. Their opposition is based on conflict-of-interest grounds.

They contend the proposed 20% cap on ownership of talent agencies by ad agencies, advertisers and indie producers will shrink actors’ salaries and opportunities. They have also asserted that the pact’s protections lack specificity and that actors are receiving too little in return for giving agents additional revenue streams to commission in video and TV reruns.

The ATA had no comment on the vote but agency toppers believe Gilbert’s back-to-back victories signal that she carries enough weight to persuade SAG members that the deal offers significant benefits. The issue was a major point of debate during both campaigns by Gilbert, in which she portrayed herself as a pragmatist with limited interest in confronting other Hollywood constituencies.

Key selling points for the deal will likely include the following:

  • The deal will avoid the chaos of deregulation that would result from elimination of the franchise agreement.

  • It will create a fund to replenish the SAG-industry pension and health plan with a 1.5% contribution from the investments into agencies and 12.5% to 50% of the new revenue stream commissions.

  • It will establish a $1 million fund to pay out money owed to actors when agencies collapse.

  • SAG will receive aid from agents in enforcing its Global Rule One campaign to prevent members from taking non-union jobs overseas.

  • It will expand opportunities for being repped by agents by bringing stability to the profession, which has been rocked in recent years by a string of departures into the less-regulated manager sector.

A minority report was last attached to a SAG vote in 1999, when SAG members voted down a proposal to merge with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

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