H’wood’s new odd couple: Agents and actors

Once you strip away the rhetoric, here’s the subtext of the dispute between actors and agents: As far as 90% of the actors are concerned, an agent is someone who either doesn’t return phone calls or who says, “Nobody wants you.”

And now these very same unemployed SAG members suddenly hear agents saying, “We need your support.” Specifically, they want the actors to say it’s OK for talent agents to own a piece of production companies, or to sell a stake in their tenpercenteries to ad agencies or other entities.

In short, they want actors, who already feel agents make too much money, to say it’s OK for them to get even richer. How’s that for a turnaround?

Let me acknowledge right here that there are important economic issues at stake, along with issues of status.

In my view, the agreement hammered out by a joint board of actors and agents, with the help of guru Ken Ziffren, deserves to be approved. The agency business is overregulated. Agents should have a chance to exercise their entrepreneurial muscle.

Further, if the deal isn’t approved, SAG could go the way of the air-traffic controllers union. Agents might make a deal with AFTRA or simply operate without franchises. In short, chaos might prevail.

I UNDERSTAND FULLY that some SAG members disagree with this conclusion — even the minority who actually work. They respond to Valerie Harper’s fear that “our representatives will be our employers.”

Since Harper is running yet again for the SAG presidency, her views carry weight — especially among those actors that don’t have a gig.

The bottom line, however, is that SAG’s national board likely will approve the new agreement March 11, three days after the rerun of SAG’s presidential election, and that it’ll be passed on for approval by the membership.

Melissa Gilbert, who won round one, is favored to repeat, and she is a proponent of the deal.

Indeed, both sides stand to benefit from the agreement.

SAG, hurting financially, could reap millions of dollars for its Actors Benefit Fund, which will be enriched by agent contributions. The agents could help SAG on many other fronts, ranging from runaway production to enforcing the SAG ban on non-union work overseas.

In return, the new rules could give the agents muscle in their ongoing rivalry with managers. It could also give top agents a chance to do some wheeling and dealing to realize real equity for their labors, though some of the town’s business types question whether the agents are really getting as much as some seem to think they are.

As we enter this brave new world, however, some actors will surely accuse their agents of taking their eye off the ball. Many already feel the “new” generation of young agents is stirred more by deals than talent.

Still, as one agency president puts it, “I keep reading accounts of all the deals we have lined up to buy and sell assets, but the rumors are way ahead of the realities.”

A RECENT PIECE in the Wall Street Journal made it seem like Omnicom, the giant advertising company, is about to bid for a major talent agency, but Omnicom has been sniffing around for years without displaying much ardor for such a transaction.

Having said all this, the landscape is bound to change drastically over the next couple of years if SAG members approve the new agreement.

High-flying entrepreneurs will surely feel that owning a 20% stake in a talent agency provides delicious leverage.

Haim Saban, who has a billion bucks or so jingling in his pockets, has confirmed that he’s burrowing through the numbers and prepping just such a foray.

At the same time, stars and filmmakers can anticipate their agents redefining their business relationship. “We’ll set up a company for you, raise financing for your films — and, of course, we’ll own 20% of your new entity,” a typical proposal will declare.

Agents, like managers, will seek to become a far more integral part of the business process. They may not be the producers, but they would like to be the proprietors.

But will they also continue to be good agents?

That’s the question some “talent” keeps pondering. Certainly today’s prototypical agent casts a different image than the classic William Morris functionary of a past generation — an individual who venerated talent, who wanted only to “service” his clients and who made a religion of anonymity.

Who knows — that agent might have voted against the agreement now before SAG members.

But he’s not around any more, is he?

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