Guild hands ball to former football pro/union exec

The Screen Actors Guild, which has a knack for attracting attention, has been unusually quiet in recent months amid an absence of the usual internal battles.

Instead, the guild’s going through a near-revolutionary change with an outsider — former NFL Players Assn. exec Doug Allen — brought in to manage the world’s most famous performers’ union. It’s the first time SAG has ever gone outside the industry to fill its top slot.

Allen faces a daunting array of challenges — sorting out jurisdictional fights with AFTRA, trying to re-establish SAG’s oversight of talent agents, and prepping for complex negotiations amid worries that the 120,000 SAG members will walk out when the contract expires June 30, 2008.

But he’s clearly started at a time of unexpected harmony. For example, no opposition has emerged to a proposal by SAG leaders for a dues increase that would boost the basic annual membership fee by $16 and double the earnings cap on dues to $1 million.

SAG currently receives approximately 1.85% of an actor’s annual earnings up to $200,000, then .5% for earnings between $200,000 and $500,000. The new proposal would call for an additional .25% due to the union on paydays between $500,000 and $1 million.

So it’s likely that Allen will have a honeymoon period for at least a few more months. He arrived on Jan. 8 and his low-key manner served him well in the first days of his job as national executive director at SAG, where internal disagreements often escalate into firefights.

Allen, a former Buffalo Bills linebacker, made no proclamations of a new era and spoke mostly in broad strokes when he addressed SAG headquarters staff in his second day on the job.

“What I emphasized was striving for excellence, communication, transparency and persistence,” he notes. “We talked mostly about what to do and very little about what not to do. I’m not in a hurry to make changes, but I will do whatever it takes to achieve our goals.”

That said, Allen didn’t look to make changes in personnel — at least right off the bat, adding, “There’s no need to tear down SAG to build it up again.”

So the obvious question is: How can his experience at the NFLPA possibly help him at SAG?

“I think there are a lot of similarities between the NFLPA and the guild,” he responds. “At the NFLPA, we represented people in made-for-TV programming, regulated agents, created pension and health plans and had a board made up of volunteers. The president is an active player, and the employers are a multiemployer unit, so there are a lot of familiar things about SAG that make me comfortable being here.”

Three months earlier, Allen had been endorsed unanimously and received a standing ovation from the SAG board of directors — a startling reversal from the long history of acrimonious boardroom battles. A year earlier, that same board had been bitterly split over firing CEO Greg Hessinger, who had lasted only six months in the job when control of the boardroom shifted to the Hollywood-based faction led by newly elected SAG president Alan Rosenberg.

But since then, Rosenberg’s placed a high priority on fence-mending with other SAG leaders. He’s gone to 19 different cities in a self-described “Unity Tour” to promote the notion of presenting a united front at negotiations next year.

And he’s stayed in touch with high-profile actors, partly because he’s married to one, Marg Helgenberger of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” He recently portrayed what he called a “creepy public defender” on the show, facing off against a prosecutor played by SAG board member Anne-Marie Johnson.

“When I talk with high-profile actors, they are acutely aware that we’re not getting our fair share — particularly in new areas like downloads,” he says.

For now, though, it’s the Writers Guild of America that has amped up Hollywood’s fears of a strike due to the scribes’ refusal to negotiate a new deal until midsummer. Rosenberg — who’s already said he’ll seek a second two-year term — helped negotiate four new contracts last year and has taken a far less strident path about the film-TV contract negotiations.

“All we’ve ever said is that we want to make a deal, and I’m totally confident that we will,” he adds.

Rosenberg’s also a fan of Allen and recently presented him with a framed copy of a 32-year-old page from the Buffalo Evening News featuring Allen as a rising star on the Bills. “We’re ready for him to take us to a new level,” he says.

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