SAG chief exec Bob Pisano plans to resign as head of the guild after 3½ tumultuous years and is expected to be replaced by AFTRA national exec director Greg Hessinger.
SAG and AFTRA had no official comment, but AFTRA’s national board was notified Monday that Hessinger plans to assume Pisano’s job in April. The 61-year-old Pisano is expected to take an industry consulting post.
The effort to recruit Hessinger, who has been AFTRA’s chief since 2000, has been spearheaded in recent days by SAG president Melissa Gilbert, secretary-treasurer James Cromwell and board member Mike Farrell.
Word of Pisano’s ankling began emerging a few hours before SAG and AFTRA — which rep about 140,000 performers — announced that members had ratified a new three-year film-TV contract with 76.5% support among those voting. Pisano and Hessinger served as the lead negotiators of the two unions in hammering out the deal, which goes into effect July 1.
SAG’s national board, which has scheduled a special board meeting for Sunday, still must approve Hessinger’s hire, but that’s expected to occur with Gilbert’s allies — who have labeled themselves Restore Respect and tout themselves as pragmatists and moderates — having a majority of that panel.
Stymied by opposition
Pisano had worked as a partner at O’Melveny & Myers and performed exec duties at MGM and Paramount before accepting the SAG post in September 2001 to succeed Ken Orsatti. Since then, he has faced considerable opposition, mostly from actors in Hollywood repped by the Performers Alliance and its successor Membership First faction.
At the time he accepted the job, Pisano said he was well aware of the ongoing rancor within SAG’s elected leadership and added, “I told them that if SAG is organized and united, there is nothing it can’t accomplish.”
The Membership First group, which tends to advocate more confrontational stances, has successfully persuaded members to vote down Pisano’s efforts in three referenda: revamping the master franchise agreement with agents to ease ownership restrictions in 2002; merging SAG and AFTRA in 2003; and increasing SAG dues in 2004.
Pisano negotiated three major contracts during his tenure — a three-year deal with the ad industry in 2003; a one-year extension in early ’04 of the theatrical-TV contract that will expire on June 30; and the new three-year theatrical-TV deal.
SAG’s national board gave Pisano a new three-year contract in early 2004; SAG’s filing with the Dept. of Labor shows Pisano received a based salary of $419,651 and other allowances and disbursements totaling $90,468 for the fiscal year ended last April 30.
Merger fell short
Pisano and Hessinger actively campaigned for the 2003 merger, stressing the need for the performers unions to cut costs and gain negotiating clout, but the measure fell just short of the required 60% approval. Opponents countered SAG would lose its uniqueness as an actors union and warned of problems from combining the unions’ separate pension and health plans.
Pisano’s position as a member on board of directors of Netflix also was the source of controversy and prompted a lawsuit last year by two members over perceived conflicts of interest. SAG’s internal and external reviews found no conflict, and a U.S. District Court judge threw out the suit in December; however, the Hollywood board voted three times last year to remove Pisano as lead negotiator and the suit has been appealed.
Scott Wilson, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, told Daily Variety, “If the rumor is true, Pisano’s resignation comes none too soon, given his conflict of interest.”
Pisano’s tenure also was marked by efforts to modernize SAG’s operations, which include 21 offices repping about 100,000 members, by updating its method of residuals payments and monitoring advertising in which guild members appear through a SAG-industry system.
AFTRA, which reps about 80,000 actors, broadcasters, newscasters, musicians and vocalists, is expected to name associate national director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth as Hessinger’s replacement. Hesssinger’s salary was $228,758 for the fiscal year ended April 30, 2003.
Citing financial pressures, AFTRA’s leaders launched a cost-cutting reorganization last summer that includes moving national headquarters from New York to Los Angeles. Relocation of the national headquarters — aimed at saving several million dollars annually — will have to be approved this year by the AFTRA convention, since it will require amending the union’s constitution.