SAG lags in topper hunt

Guild drags out search for executive director

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Screen Actors Guild to hire a new executive director.

Since abruptly firing CEO Greg Hessinger last October, SAG’s leaders have been taking a leisurely approach to finding a replacement. And the lack of a go-to exec at SAG is causing unease among studios and nets, even with negotiations on the guild’s film-TV contract at least a year away.

Former chief financial officer Peter Frank has been serving as SAG’s interim chief since last fall. Rumors emerged this week that the five-person search committee would employ a recruitment specialist to screen candidates, but SAG spokesman Seth Oster shot down that notion.

“No outside firm has been hired and no decision has been made about whether or not to do so,” he said.

The situation has become more complicated for SAG due to Santa Clara U. law professor Steven Diamond’s unexpected decision to withdraw his name earlier this month after he couldn’t reach agreement on terms of his contract.

Those terms weren’t disclosed but knowledgeable sources believe SAG’s leaders were offering a deal that was not as rich or as long as Hessinger’s four-year $1.6 million pact. Such an approach may be hampering SAG’s ability to attract top candidates, given that the top execs of SAG, the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America have been signed in the past to long-term deals with annual salaries well above $400,000.

The SAG job carries the additional baggage of having to operate amid entrenched factionalism. In this case, SAG’s elected reps are badly split as to how much power should be accorded to the top exec on such crucial issues as personnel decisions.

When Guild leaders sacked Hessinger five months into his four-year deal, the move came less than a month after control of the SAG board shifting to the more aggressive Membership First faction headed by president Alan Rosenberg. Membership First supporters had bristled over Hessinger’s decision to hire two former AFTRA execs and an ad industry exec without consulting Rosenberg or the board.

During his campaign, Rosenberg had told members that SAG needed to bargain and organize nonunion work more forcefully.

SAG leaders have also considered Teamsters Local 399 organizer Steve Dayan; state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), a former talent agent; and Laura Zucker, exec director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. But with Diamond having been disclosed as a front-runner, the Guild’s now in a more difficult position in approaching other short-list candidates.

The SAG search committee includes Rosenberg, New York SAG prexy Paul Christie, first VP Anne Marie Johnson, third VP Steve Fried and secretary-treasurer Connie Stevens. Johnson and Stevens were elected as part of Rosenberg’s slate; Christie and Fried are staunch opponents.

Rosenberg, who’s on vacation this week, has pledged repeatedly that his policies stem from addressing the concerns of working actors.

SAG’s film-TV contract won’t expire until July 2008 but its current deal with the ad industry concludes in October. Leaders have agreed to the outlines of a deal to extend the ad contract for at least a year in order to wait for the completion of a study about changing revenue models.

It’s not the first time that SAG has been bogged down in the search for a top executive.

Guild leaders needed nearly a year to replace Ken Orsatti, who announced his retirement in October 2000. The search committee settled eight months later on TV exec John Cooke, who resigned a few days after accepting the post when questions emerged on the board over how much power he should be given.

The search committee, which had employed Korn Ferry, then selected former studio exec Bob Pisano, who left in spring 2005 for a post as president of MPAA after a rocky three-year tenure and was replaced by Hessinger.

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