SAG battle rattles biz

Guild looks to take an aggressive stance

A wave of apprehension overtook Hollywood’s executive offices Monday in the wake of the SAG national board’s surprise firings of CEO Greg Hessinger and three other execs.

Those actions may portend a more aggressive tack toward studios, networks and agents in coming months amid expectations that the board — narrowly controlled by the Membership First faction — will become emboldened to go further.

Membership First, headed by new prexy Alan Rosenberg, has been fairly circumspect about specifics of its long-term strategies. Rosenberg ascribed Hessinger’s firing to SAG members’ desire, expressed in last month’s election, to bargain contracts more aggressively and devote more resources to organizing non-union work.

But the moves — coupled with a similar shift at the WGA West — have provoked worries that SAG’s heading toward two possible doomsday scenarios:

  • A work stoppage. Many of those now in power were also leading SAG during the presidency of William Daniels, which saw a six-month strike in 2000 against advertisers. SAG’s next contract negotiations cover basic cable TV, while the advertising contract runs out a year from now and its film-TV contract expires in mid-2008.

  • Reviving the SAG rule requiring that actors be represented by a guild-franchised agent, which would force many working actors to choose between SAG and their agency. Guild suspended that rule in 2002 in the wake of relinquishing oversight over most of the town’s major agencies when its members refused to revamp SAG’s master franchise agreement.

Allies of Rosenberg have already insisted that no such plans are in the works. They note that the formal process of prepping for advertising contract negotiations hasn’t been launched yet and that there’s been no effort to revive negotiations with the agents over the master franchise agreement.

But execs were already predicting Monday that should SAG’s leaders start moving in those directions, the town’s top actors would oppose such actions.

For now, SAG’s administration has been placed in the hands of former studio exec Peter Frank, who was elevated Sunday from chief financial officer to interim CEO. Frank was tapped in early 2004 to succeed Francesca Hickson, who had departed amid complaints over SAG’s ongoing internal battles.

Those bitter divisions were in evidence during the weekend board meeting as opponents, headed by SAG New York president Paul Christie, walking out in protest following the votes on the firings. Christie issued a statement alleging Hessinger’s axing occurred under a veil of secrecy despite campaign promises by Rosenberg about transparency, consensus and unity.

“How ironic that a guild whose main mission is to protect its workers and enforce contracts is saying to its own employees that their contracts are null and void and their rights are nonexistent,” Christie added.  “What hypocrisy.”

The five-member committee appointed to seek a new CEO includes Rosenberg, Christie, first VP Anne Marie Johnson, third VP Steve Fried and secretary-treasurer Connie Stevens. No consensus candidate has yet emerged.

Insiders also believe SAG’s likely to begin withdrawing financial support soon from some of the smaller branch offices it operates jointly with AFTRA.

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